Category Archives: Donald Westlake novels

Addendum: The Mystery of Joseph Albert

“I’ll carry the message,” Meany said.

“Yes, you will,” Parker agreed.  “On the floor.”

“I’ll carry it now!  I’ll make a phone call!”

“Who to?

Meany licked his lips.  His elbows were twitching back and forth from the strain of holding his hands together on top of his head.  “One of the owners,” he said. “A guy that can make the offer.”

“What’s his name?”

Meany didn’t like doing this, but he knew he had no choice.  “Joseph Albert.”

Parker looked at Arthur.  “Do you know that name?”

From Firebreak, by Richard Stark.

“You look more like your mother than your father,” he said.

Then I got it.  “You’re a lying son of a bitch,” I said.

“You look a lot more like her. I know.  I see your father in the mirror every morning.”

I laughed at him.  “You’re crazy, or you think we are.  Or are you just wisecracking again?”

“It’s true,” he said.

Bill said, “What the hell’s going on?”

From 361, by Donald E. Westlake.

I’ve written my last Stark review.  (Unless there’s some unpublished manuscript out there, awaiting rediscovery.  I think we’d know by now.)  Not my last Stark analysis by a long shot.  There will always be more to say about an author that interesting, even if he was just one voice within the convoluted cranium of Donald Edwin Westlake.

But I did think, after typing out three part reviews of  Firebreak and Dirty Money, that I had at least covered the bases for both those books, plumbed their essential mysteries  Again, I’m forced to say–I was wrong.  I missed the most tantalizing mystery of all.

Throughout the series, starting with The Hunter, Parker had come up against arrogant mob bosses.  Taking money from them, waging wars of attrition upon them, forming alliances of convenience with them, and, more than once, murdering them when they became sufficiently irksome.

Arthur Bronson.  Walter Karns.  Adolf Lozini.  Louis Buenadella.  The excellent character guide for these books maintained at the University of Chicago Press website, glosses over the details a bit when it refers to them all as members of ‘The Outfit.’  Lozini and Buenadella are midwestern mafiosi, aware of The Outfit (still headed by Karns at the time of Butcher’s Moon), loosely affiliated with it perhaps, but not under its sway. Only Bronson, Karns and their various subordinates referred to in the first sixteen novels would count as members of that national syndicate, peddling vice to the masses.

To Parker, I should add, the differences between various criminal organizations are meaningless, semantic–their names are just words these people play with to pretend they’re something more than thieves, like him.  He recognizes them as part of his world, on the same general side of the law as him, and sometimes he has to deal with them. Thorough-going independent that he is, he can never identify with any such group.  His ethos and theirs are diametrically opposed.  In this, Parker represents his creator’s own deep feelings about authority, and more specifically, corporations, legal and otherwise.

The final such enterprise Parker encountered, first in Firebreak, then again in Dirty Money, was Cosmopolitan Beverages, an ‘import/export’ business (another fancy name, this time for smuggling), headquartered in Bayonne NJ, run day to day by Frank Meany, described as a semi-reformed thug wearing expensive suits.

But The Big Boss (one of five, we’re told), is named Joseph Albert.  We never see him,  Parker only talks to him on speakerphone.  We’re told his voice is heavy, guarded.  He sounds educated–doesn’t talk like a thug, reformed or otherwise (we’ll assume his suits are even nicer than Meany’s).  A CEO of crime.  If that’s not too redundant a term.

By the end of Dirty Money, by default the end of his story, Parker has formed yet another alliance of convenience, this time with Cosmopolitan.  He’ll sell them the roughly two million dollars from the bank in Massachusetts,  for 200k in untraceable cash–they can launder the bills overseas.  Gives him money to live on, gives them a little more liquidity.

He attaches one more condition to the deal–they put him on their employment rolls, vouch for him with the straight world, so he can create a new identity for himself, have a driver’s license and passport that will hold up to all but the most intense scrutiny.  A strictly no-show job (mob guys know all about those).  Meany and Albert will be only his nominal bosses–but still–it’s a compromise.  The biggest he’s ever made.

The Information Age is becoming a problem. Forcing him to make difficult choices.  But he never flinches from those.  Without good ID, he’s not going to stay free much longer.  But it suddenly occurs to me–what he’s doing here is not entirely unlike what Mal Resnick did–for very different motives–when he gave all the money he and Parker had stolen together to The Outfit, to regain his position there.

Joseph Albert is briefly referenced in Dirty Money–Meany clears the exchange with him, and reports to Parker that Mr. Albert said that if Meany wanted to cut a deal with a son of a bitch like that, it’s up to him.  In Firebreak, remember, Parker had more than hinted that if Albert didn’t call off the hit on him they’d ordered as a favor to Paul Brock, he’d be putting one out on Albert, after he killed Meany.  And carrying out the contract in person, as usual.  Difficult to say how personally Albert took that threat.  On the phone, he sounded very cold and businesslike.  More of a Karns than a Bronson.

So what would have happened if there had been more novels?  Would this arrangement have held?  There are reasons to doubt it.  Parker has effectively shared his score with them.  Suppose they decide they want a share of subsequent heists?  Suppose they decide he really is their employee?  Suppose they have little errands for him to run?  How much can he say no to, before they tell him play ball or his cover’s blown?  He and Claire can walk away from the house in New Jersey, but it would be harder for him to walk away from his new name (whatever it is).

You have to figure there would be some kind of showdown.  Perhaps not as sanguinary as the previous wars.  But when Parker has a problem with middle management, he always wants to go straight to the top.  And that’s not Meany.  That’s Albert.  Interesting name, that.  Joseph Albert. Is that the whole moniker, or just first and middle?  You know, like Sinatra was sometimes called Francis Albert.

I don’t know how I missed this for so long.  Granted, when I started reading these books, I  had almost no background info on their author.  But it’s been a few years since I learned the name of Westlake’s father.  Albert Joseph Westlake. That’s right.

And I also learned that after Albert Joseph’s death, Westlake discovered his father knew people in organized crime, back during the Prohibition era. He may, in fact, have done accounting work for bootleggers.  You know.  People who smuggle alcoholic beverages, among other things.  Import/Export.  A very cosmopolitan trade, I’ve heard.

So shall we chalk this up to coincidence, or a private joke?  I don’t think so.  He’s telling us something.  He knows most of his readers won’t twig to it, but he thinks some of us will (I doubt I’m the first).  The Parker novels aren’t whodunnit mysteries (The Jugger being a partial exception), but mysteries they are, all the same.  Mystery writers give you clues.  It’s up to you to put the pieces together.  To look underneath the surface of things.  These books were never just about stealing and killing.

But what is this about?  Was Parker headed for an “I am your father” moment?  Pretty sure he turned to the dark side a long time ago.  The supreme mystery of the series–the one we never got close to solving–was where did someone as strange as Parker come from in the first place?

We know he served in the army during WWII in his early teens, going by his age when we meet him (and this is something that happened a lot more than people think).  We know he got dishonorably discharged after getting involved in the black market, and that it didn’t bother him one bit.

We know he lived in cities when he was younger, never felt at home there.  We know he got involved with armed robbery somehow, after the war.  We know he got married, that he was in love with his wife, but that he lost all interest in sex a few months after he pulled a job, only to have his libido ramp back up again after he pulled another.  That’s it.  He is never seen to think about anybody he knew before all that.  He doesn’t have any tattoos (unless you count bullet wounds), but if he did, you can bet none of them would say “Mother.”

His alternate universe mirror twin, John Dortmunder, was found abandoned at the door of a convent, when only a few minutes old.  Raised by the Bleeding Heart Sisters of Eternal Misery.  So did something comparable (but utterly devoid of comic overtones) happen to Parker?  Only without the nuns, or a long stretch in prison?  Is that why he had to grow up so fast? Or was he ever really a kid at all?  Who–or what–could have given birth to such an unaccountable creature?  Who could have fathered him? Being a foundling doesn’t explain him in the least. Maybe nothing could.

The Hunter was written more or less in tandem with 361, the best of Westlake’s early crime novels, before he became known more for comic capers under his own name.  (Both books feature the George Washington Bridge in their opening chapters.)  It’s a taut little noir masterpiece, about a young man named Ray Kelly, just out of the army, who finds out the man he sees as his father wasn’t always an honest lawyer–he used to work for a mob boss.  The mob boss, named Kapp, is Ray’s biological father.  Who tries to make the protagonist accept him as his true father.  Doesn’t go well.

Ray’s mother killed herself, when he was very young.  The mobster tells him she was–different.  She married Ray’s foster father first, had a son with him.  Motherhood brought something out of her, something Kapp couldn’t quite describe, something that attracted him, so he took her, and she went, willingly.  Ray looks like her, he’s told–and he’s like her in less obvious ways.  He has his father’s brains, drive, genius for criminal intrigue, and violence comes naturally to him–but he’s not a joiner.  Not an organization man.  Independent to the core.

And he wants the truth, at all costs.  He wants to know about himself, even if it means destroying every last vestige of his old identity.  He’s telling us all this in first person narrator form.  And we still feel like he’s not really sharing with us.  Always holding back.  A stranger on this earth, as much as anyone Camus (or Dinah Washington) ever imagined.

It’s not hard to divine that 361 was part of how Westlake dealt with mixed feelings about his family.  The man who raised Ray Kelly clearly loved him, was loved in return.  As Westlake was loved by the man who got him out of trouble, when he was caught stealing equipment from a college laboratory for pocket change.  Then apologized to his son for not being able to give him everything he needed in life. But is that all there was to the relationship?  Gratitude and guilt?

Albert Joseph Westlake worked very hard, kept his own counsel.  On the road for business, he felt a heart attack coming on, checked into a hotel, drank cheap liquor until it had passed.  When he lost his job, he went out day after day, as if he was still employed, keeping it from his wife and children for months.  Because that’s what he thought a man does.  Whatever he may or may not have done for bootleggers–that wasn’t something he ever shared with his son, and his wife didn’t know much about it either–just that a well-known gangster once approached him, addressed him as Al.

Westlake had his doubts about this way of living, but he could respect it.  What he couldn’t do was accept the life his father had chosen–whether it was working for a company or a mob.  He was going to work for himself, hew to a different path.  His father never lived to see him succeed on that path.  Is it likely the father had nothing to say about the pragmatic drawbacks of the career choice his son had made?

With rare exceptions (Up Your Banners comes to mind) Westlake never wrote too much about parent/child relationships.  He came at them obliquely, for the most part.  So yes, I think this is another case of that sideways glance at his own childhood–feeling his father never was honest and open with him.  Feeling abandoned at times by a mother who worked constantly herself.  Feeling like a cuckoo in the nest. Different. Odd.

But at the end of the day–and Dirty Money was written at the very end–hadn’t Westlake ultimately spent his life working for corporations?  Literary agencies, publishers, film studios.  Yes, freelance work.  What’s the difference?  It still amounts to giving the bosses what they want in exchange for the money to support yourself and your loved ones.  He was more creative than his father, sure.  More independent.  Lots richer. But in his mind, Albert Joseph Westlake still loomed over him.  As fathers tend to do, all the more in death.

What was going to happen? Is Joseph Albert literally Parker’s long lost sire, or just a sly subtextual metaphor for Donald Edwin’s conflicted emotions regarding Albert Joseph?  Could be both.  Not neither.

Would Parker have been forced to go to war with Albert, to kill him, or be killed by him?  Would he declare independence once more, or would he be drawn further in for a time, as Ray Kelly was?  Would we at least find out who his mother was?

Remember Quittner, from Butcher’s Moon?  Somebody like Parker, it’s implied–who had joined a criminal syndicate, surrendered his independence.  And over time, this compromise had eaten away at his sense of self.  Made him a shadow of the wolf he was born to be.  Unable to cope with the wilder freer version of himself he was confronted by in Tyler.  If it could happen to him, it could happen to Parker too.  But would Stark allow that?  Could he prevent it?  The romanticism of the earlier books was, as I’ve already mentioned, starting to wear thin in the latter ones.

I think no matter how many more Parker novels Westlake had written, we’d never have gotten all the answers.  But as matters worked out, we got none.  Just a question that was never asked out loud.  Who is Joseph Albert?  And why, when Meany comes to him with Parker’s offer, does he say (according to Meany), “If you want to deal with a son of a bitch like him, it’s okay with me”?

Technically any male wolf–well, I’m reading too much into it.  I do that sometimes.  But the mystery remains.  Everyone in this world faces the same mystery.   Who was my father?  Who was my mother?  That relationship can span most of our lives.  We can love them, hate them, condemn them, forgive them, ignore them.  Do we ever know them?  And if not, do we ever really know ourselves?

Search your feelings.  You know it to be true.

Advertisements

4 Comments

Filed under Donald Westlake, Donald Westlake novels, Parker Novels, Richard Stark

Mr. Parker and The Casting Call, Part 2: Guns of The Reminiscent Seven.

To be honest, I don’t believe there are going to be any more attempts to adapt any of the Parker novels for a long time to come.  By the time it happens, if it happens, almost anyone we might think of who is the right age now could be out of the running.  So what are we doing here?  I won’t speak for  you, but I’m trying to convince myself it’s even theoretically possible to cast an actor who is spot-on right for this role.

To that end, I find myself casting an eye backwards in time–to actors born a mite too soon to play Parker (but may have had some influence on his creation).  To actors perhaps too iconic and sought-after to play him by the time it became an option.  Or to actors who, though much appreciated in supporting roles, often villainous ones, never quite made it as leading men, and thus would never have been considered in the first place, unless it was some lowly B picture from Poverty Row (which might have been the best option).

It’s all moot, but does that make for any less enjoyable an exercise? These days, I’m grateful for distractions, triter the better, so let’s survey the competitors, the youngest of whom is eighty-four.  (The rest, being deceased, are all the same age.)  I’m going to consider them roughly in order of generation.  Starting with–

RYAN, Robert.  Born 1909, Chicago IL.  Height: 6’4.  Eyes: brown. 

This may seem an odd pick.  By the mid-60’s, when Hollywood began to pay attention to Parker, Robert Ryan was pushing sixty hard. But I don’t feel like any list of actors who might have had the potential to play this role is complete without him. In the history of noir on film, there is no grander name to conjure with.

Not much doubt he was the best actor on this list of mine.  But he was never the kind of actor who put on airs–who was afraid to underplay, when that’s what the role called for.  He could be almost impossibly cool–but you could still feel the rage seething beneath, barely held in check.  He often played characters who were on the verge of losing control, fighting a losing war of self-containment.

But he could play calm well-balanced men as well, as he did in The Wild Bunch.  He could play cowards, pedants, bullies and blusterers.  He could play the hell out of just about anything.  The year The Hunter came out, he played John Claggart in Ustinov’s Billy Budd.  His last role was Larry Slade, in John Frankenheimer’s boiled down adaptation of The Iceman Cometh.  If he ever gave a bad performance, I haven’t seen it.

More than tall enough for Parker, built towards the lean and ropy side.  As a younger man, he was in splendid physical shape, knew how to box, could move like lightning.  He could project murderous intensity, and he could be sexy, without being conventionally handsome.  More of an ensemble player, but he had the charisma of a star–and people knew him the moment he walked onscreen.

So if you could figure out how to do a series of Parker movies in the 1950’s, he’d be hard to beat.  My reservation is the one I have for all truly great actors–with Parker, you have to know when not to act.  Much as I think Ryan could restrain himself as needed, his work in crime movies leans more towards the histrionic side (partly because that’s what the movies of his era called for).  He’d have been brilliant in those stories where Parker is on a rampage, all his buttons pushed.  But I’d like him even better in something by David Goodis or Peter Rabe.

Next up is another Robert–the guy you’d want to see in almost any hardboiled role in crime fiction.  Only trouble with him is that he’s too damn good-looking.

MITCHUM, Robert.  Born 1917, Bridgeport CT.   Height: 6’1  Eyes: dark blue (I think), heavy-lidded.

With Ryan, I’d like to somehow transport the younger man forward in time a bit.  With Mitchum, I don’t feel like he could have played Parker until he was well into his forties.  The Mitchum we want is the Cape Fear Mitchum–early 60’s vintage.  And who ever believed Gregory Peck could take him?  In a courtroom scene, sure.  Or a western.  Not anything hardboiled.

But he never needed to play the toughest man in town.  Never mattered much to him.  Never took himself that serious.  When you’ve got that kind of personal magnetism, doesn’t make sense to exert yourself.  Mitchum underplays almost everything, because he doesn’t need to try that hard to draw us in.  He’ll put in the work, reveal himself, if he thinks the role is worth it.  But most of the time, he just doesn’t give a damn.  Most of the time he’s hiding beneath a ceremonial mask of skin. (Or getting himself arrested–never had much use for authority.)

Mitchum fits the descriptions of Parker that lean towards big, blocky, shaggy.  Westlake didn’t always have the same image in his mind when writing the character, and neither do we when reading about him.

Though he was more often cast as sympathetic characters, Mitchum liked playing really bad guys, and you could make a case nobody ever played them so well.  If I’d like Ryan for the stories where Parker is angry at the world, out for blood, I’d like Mitchum for the ones where hiding his true nature from the world–and of course, for the ones where there’s a woman involved.  Of all the names on this list, this is the one that would most easily justify Parker’s ineffable allure for the opposite sex.  I can’t think of a single leading lady Mitchum didn’t have chemistry with.  But as with everything else, he never worked hard for that either.  Lucky bastard.

He almost played Mitch Tobin, in a movie that never got made.  He’d have been right for that too, though in a different mode.  Not that he’d be right for any Westlake protagonist.  About the only worse pick for Dortmunder would be Robert Redford.  Strange be the ways of Hollywood.  Nobody found them stranger than the most reluctant star of all time, namely–

HAYDEN, Sterling.  Born 1916, Montclair NJ.  Height: 6’5.  Eyes: dark–something. 

The biggest problem with casting Sterling Hayden as Parker isn’t that he turned fifty before Point Blank was even made.  It’s that you would never know when he’d take a mind to jump in The Wanderer, set sail for distant climes, and not come back until his money ran out.

He didn’t even like acting until he got older, and they stopped trying to turn him into a matinee idol.  He hated being forced into any kind of mold.  Which is precisely what would make him a prime candidate here, along with his intimidating size, his patented surly glower, and the undeniable fact that he played a primary prototype for Parker, in one of the greatest crime films ever made.  You know the one.

I can’t pretend to myself that the Hayden of the 60’s could have played Parker, except maybe one of the later books.  He had happily moved into more eccentric supporting roles by then, the pressures of unwanted stardom no longer weighing him down. But I can’t watch Hayden as Dix, Sam Jaffe as Doc, without being further convinced that one aspect to Westlake’s conception of Parker was his aspiration to combine the two–brawn and brains in the same package.

Hayden only played a heistman one more time after The Asphalt Jungle–in that film he had brains and brawn (and bad luck).  See what you think.

He had, you might argue, the best pedigree (even if he was a blonde).  But again, born a bit too soon.  And a bit too fidgety.

Let’s move on to the one actor Westlake mentioned as a direct influence in Parker’s creation.  Not my personal pick, but you can’t talk about the might-have-beens without mentioning–

PALANCE, Jack.  Born 1919, Hazle Township PA.  Height: 6’4. Eyes: dark brown, verging on black.  Onyx, one might almost say.

Westlake would have gone to see a lot of movies about armed robbers in the years before he wrote The Hunter, so in all probability, he saw this one, a remake of High Sierra.  Not as good as the original–but the lead was somebody you’d be much less happy about meeting in a dark alley.  Or a well-lit one.

Palance, as an actor, was a mixed bag.  Huge ability, but he didn’t always know what to do with it.  In a picture like The Big Knife, he’s practically dancing across the screen, hyperkinetic, almost dizzying (personally, I find that film exhausting, but that may be Clifford Odets’ fault).  In other performances, he’s like the proverbial coiled spring–just about to snap.  I prefer the latter approach for him.  And for Parker.

He doesn’t look human–sometimes he’s more of a monster than Karloff was with Jack Pierce and the entire Universal Pictures makeup department helping him out.  There’s often this sense of him being out of place–of having been born not so much in the wrong century, but the wrong millennia, possibly the wrong geologic era (not for nothing did they cast him as Attila the Hun).  But the present day is where you most often find him, and he’s going to have to make the best of that.

He’d have been a good pick for Parker in the 50’s, into the Mid-60’s.  Though physically, he’d have been able for the role well into the 70’s, fitness freak that he was.  It would have been imperative to have a director who could rein him in.  He, unlike Mitchum, liked working too hard.  A natural born ham, he relished big dramatic gestures, strong facial expressions, and those are only rarely called for with Parker.

The Palance you want in this case is minimalist Palance, impassive as a rock, twice as hard–and he can be hard to find, but he’s worth looking for.  All he had to do to embody Parker was stand there and breathe.  He might not have found that interesting enough.

But if the acting career hadn’t worked out, he could have picked up some cash modeling for Robert E. McGinnis crime paperback covers.  He’d have looked terrifying, walking across the George Washington Bridge at dawn, murder in his mind.  And we can be pretty sure that’s the image Westlake had in his head when he wrote that scene.

Next is my most perverse pick by far, that even I don’t take seriously.  But I make it anyway, because 1)He could have played the part with zenlike restraint and 2)Some imp of the perverse within me thrills at the notion of making the ultimate white hat into the baddest hombre of all.  I speak of none other than–

ARNESS, James.  Born 1923, Minneapolis MN.  Height: 6’7 (in his cowboy boots).  Eyes: blue.

Anyone whose two signature roles are a straight-arrow TV western lawman and a carnivorous bipedal vegetable from another world can be said to have had an interesting career.  James Arness was, to all accounts, a very thoroughgoing gentleman, and there is reason to doubt that he would have been willing to portray Parker at his most dastardly.  So why am I bringing him up?

I guess because of scenes like this–

In a sense, Arness never stopped playing The Thing From Another World, only the planet he hailed from was Justice.  In scenes that called for Matt Dillon to get angry, he never lost his cool–he got even colder.  His eyes would turn to purest ice, bore contemptuously into whoever had roused his ire, and even if that bad guy was played by Chuck Bronson, he’d start to look scared. Matt Dillon was the most frightening good guy in television history.  I’m not sure even Palance could have shown that side of Parker so well.

Think about that scene in The Rare Coin Score, where Neo Nazi Otto Mainzer asks if fellow string member Mike Carlow is Jewish.  We’re told Parker just looks at him.  And Otto, a big scary guy in his own right, starts backpedaling, and we understand that he’s worried Parker will kill him right then and there, so that he won’t ruin the job with his personal crap.  How many actors could pull that off?  This one could.

So the question is, was there something in him that might have enjoyed playing the villain for once, if the villain’s targets were mainly other villains.  He was not one of the more ambitious stars you can name, but he knew his craft, and he knew as well as anyone how to underplay, show you what he was feeling with a relatively minor change of expression.

I think the main objection to him is that if he was playing someone who didn’t believe in law and order, and was more than willing to shoot first, it would be awfully hard to depict him as the underdog in any fight.  Slayground would literally be a romp in the park for that guy.

Humor me on this one, I’m a huge fan of early Gunsmoke (the Meston era, far as I’m concerned that show only ran ten seasons).  So much so that I’m going to put up another YouTube video–only this time the coldest eyes in the scene I’m looking at don’t belong to Arness.  Or to anybody who was ever any kind of star, though he sure had a long career.  Go in a bit over eleven minutes.

No, I don’t mean Strother Martin, though he’d have been a fine addition to the cast of any Parker adaptation.  I’m talking about someone  I first noticed in a small but important role in The Outfit.  He played a hitman, out to kill Duvall’s Macklin.  I don’t know how Macklin got out of that picture alive.  Fiction isn’t always fair. Best man doesn’t always win.  And in this contest I’m playing out in my head, the best man for the job might very well have been–

REESE, Tom.  Born 1928, Chattanooga TN.  Height: 6’3.  Eyes: Narrowed, depthless, unreadable.  Wouldn’t swear to their color.

You always want what you can’t have, and all the names on this list qualify in that respect.  Tom Reese never played the lead in anything.  But the more I see of him, the more I know–he was really something.  He’s my personal pick.

Big. Tall. Blocky.  Face like chipped concrete.  Eyes like a wolf, almond-shaped, unblinking, merciless.  Voice as impassive as his eyes, betraying little in the way of a regional accent.  There’s a scene in The Outfit, where he’s walking with his hands swinging at his sides, and you just know somebody made a mistake.  This is Parker.  Duvall is playing the crazy guy Parker’s going to kill.

He’s dressed as a priest when we first see him in that movie, and I wonder if maybe Westlake was thinking of that when he had Parker pose as a priest in Flashfire (it’s as good an explanation as any).  Later, he’s dressed as a hunter, complete with cap.  Suits him.  He doesn’t sneak up on his targets, he stalks them.  He’s a murderous automaton, that would give The Terminator nightmares.  They wasted him in that movie, but they usually did. And yet, he would find a way to get his point across, time after time.

And it’s hard to find suitable images of him online.  I’ve ordered a DVD of The Outfit.  Maybe later I’ll take some screenshots, put them up.  My personal tip of the hat to somebody who deserved a bigger career, but far as I know, he never complained.  Just did his job like a pro, claimed his split, went home.  Perfect.

But since perfection is not to be had in this world, here’s my idea of a compromise–

SMITH, William.  Born 1933, Columbia MO.  Height: 6’1-6’2 (opinions vary).  Eyes: dark as dark gets. 

Let’s play one last what-if game, just a little more rooted in reality.  Let’s imagine Point Blank had grossed enough to qualify as a minor hit.  Enough for MGM to consider a follow-up.  Let’s further imagine that they needed somebody to replace Lee Marvin as Walker, which doesn’t require much imagination, since he hated repeating himself.

And it’s a historical fact that the TV western Laredo, starring William Smith as Joe Riley–a role not unlike Clint Eastwood’s in Rawhide–ended the same year Point Blank came out.  Born the same year as Donald E. Westlake, just nine months earlier, Smith was just the right age to play Parker by then.  And it’s hard to imagine any actor more precisely resembling the character described to us in the opening paragraphs of The Hunter.  Or better able to embody the menace of the character.  Or his dangerous sex appeal.

Smith never got his big break, as Eastwood, Garner and McQueen did after their western shows ended (he fought the first two onscreen, he engaged in impromptu auto races with the last offscreen).  He, like Reese, was destined for a seemingly endless series of guest starring roles on TV, and a long succession of big screen heavies (and he was Conan of Cimmeria’s dad for like five minutes–he’d have far better than Arnold in the main role, but that wasn’t his karma).

Smith has many of the same strengths and weaknesses of Jack Palance, was perhaps not as good an actor, but given the generally putrid quality of the scripts he was given, it’s hard to say.  He made the whole country hate him in Rich Man, Poor Man.  He was encouraged to mug it up, because that’s what sneering heavies do.  Only rarely did he get a chance to show restraint, because restraint was almost never what the director wanted from him.  But he could keep a straight face when that’s what was called for.

WILLIAM-SMITH-8

WILLIAM-SMITH-2

What was usually called for was more like this–(he claimed Taylor broke a few of his ribs, and made it sound like a compliment.  Taylor never disclosed the full extent of his injuries.)

Or, on television, this (and yeah, I considered Garner for Parker, but would we want to lose him as Rockford?  He was too much the comedian to play it straight for long.)

The villains he usually played were too over the top, but does that mean Smith couldn’t have reined himself in, if he was the name above the title, instead of far below it?  Give him the right director, the right scriptwriter, an adequate budget, and he might have been the guy.  He sure as hell would have been available.

I’ve said it before, but for some roles, you don’t want the best actor–you want the right one.  Somebody born to play the part.  Willing to just let the character step forth,  unedited, unbidden, unforced.  Lee Marvin came the closest, but Marvin was too big a star by the time he came to Parker, and any major star is going to come with too many strings attached.

Think about what any casting director would have to find here.  Tall.  Powerful. Huge hands. Scary but sexy.  Calm, quiet-spoken, but able to project cold rage when needed.  Able to credibly scare the bejeebers out of mob bosses and criminal sociopaths, and yet mask his true nature from the straight world, and particularly the law.  Looking for all the world like a man born into the wrong age–or a wolf born into the wrong body.  Nothing to it, right?

That’s right.

So I’ve had several suggestions for somebody who could play Parker right now.  Michael Shannon.  Kevin Durand.  I’ve mentioned Joe Manganiello once or twice.  Not enough to justify a Part 3.  Anybody else got a pick?  If not, I’ve got one more thing to talk about before we get to the very last book in the queue.  Call it an addendum to my previous review.

28 Comments

Filed under Donald Westlake film adaptations, Donald Westlake novels, Parker film adaptations, Parker Novels, Richard Stark

Mr. Parker and The Casting Call

Office women in passing cars looked at him and felt vibrations above their nylons.  He was big and shaggy, with flat square shoulders, and arms too long in sleeves too short.–

–His hands, swinging curve-fingered at his sides, looked like they were molded of brown clay by a sculptor who thought big and liked veins.  His hair was brown and dry and dead, blowing around his head like a poor toupee about to fly loose.  His face was a chipped chunk of concrete, with eyes of flawed onyx.  His mouth was a quick stroke, bloodless.  His suit coat fluttered behind him, and his arms swung easy as he walked.

“I saw Point Blank at a film festival a year or so ago, and I was absolutely shocked. I’d forgotten.  It was a rough film.  The prototype.  You’ve seen it a thousand times since in other forms.  That was a troubled time for me, too, in my own personal relationship, so I used an awful lot of that in making the picture, even the suicide of my wife.”

Actors.  Can’t live with ’em, can’t shoot ’em.  Well, some do both, of course.  That second quote up top is from Dwayne Epstein’s Lee Marvin: Point Blank, and I feel I must point out that the trouble in Marvin’s personal life was the break-up of his first marriage, to Betty Ebeling (why am I suddenly reminded of a passage from Adios, Scheherazade?

She did not commit suicide.  She left her movie star husband, because he drank, and he saw other women, and she had a hard time of it for a while there, but she published a tell-all biography, and got a career, and she made out okay.  Her ex maybe a little better.

Marvin, being an actor, was conflating his own past emotional tumults with that of his character, Walker–a character he’d played once, decades before.  Whose wife commits suicide.  In the movie Point Blank, directed by John Boorman.  Based on The Hunter, written by Richard Stark, aka Donald Westlake.  (I’m not sure Marvin ever read the book.)

But he did like something about the character in the original script, drawn heavily from the novel, that he literally threw out the window when he took control of the project, and gave it over to Boorman, who made a very interesting movie with a largely incoherent story, and it bombed.  Marvin had The Dirty Dozen out the same year, so again, he was fine.  Lee Marvin was always going to be fine. And he was the best actor ever to play Parker, the one who got closest to the character.  No cigar, mind you.

He wasn’t the first to play some version of Parker.  That was Anna Karina.  I’m not counting her.  Don’t yell chauvinism, I’m not counting Peter Coyote or Jason Statham either.  I think there are four film adaptations, from 1967 to 1973, of four Stark novels,  (plus one 1999 ‘remake’ I can’t leave out, though I’d like to), that are close enough to even talk about as adaptations.  Five performances worth evaluating as attempts to portray a fictional character who has been notoriously difficult to portray.

All are entertaining.  All have casts to brag on.  None of them got it right.  The books or the character behind them. Parker has eluded everyone who ever tried to capture him on film.  To be fair, some weren’t trying that hard.  Their interests lay elsewhere.

But let’s note two things–the books must have been popular to get four radically different adaptations, in so short a time, most of them featuring big names above the title.  And even if none of the movies hit big, they still gave a substantial boost to Westlake’s career.  And therefore, to Stark’s career.  And hence, to Parker’s longevity.  Would we have twenty-four Parker novels if not for those first four Parker movies?  The relationship can’t be denied, however poorly the progeny resemble the parent.

Let’s beg another question.  Could anybody get it right now?  Could anybody have gotten it right at any time in the past?  Is Parker just too elusive to be captured on film, pixels, or whatever they’re using now?  Big screen, small screen, episodic, serialized–could it ever work?  Should we give a damn either way?  Is there any better way to ruin a good book than to make a movie of it?

Thing is, we make a movie in our heads, every time we read a work of prose fiction.  We cast the characters from a pool composed of actors living and dead, people we have loved or loathed or just seen in passing on the street.  Quite often the result is a composite of all the above, an ideal, something that could never exist outside our heads.  Real casting directors have to settle for what’s available.  (And within their price range, and of course they have to think about things like name recognition, drawing power.  I don’t.)

So let’s start by talking about these five very different stars who at least got within spitting range of the character (who wouldn’t waste spit on any of them).  And next time, I’m going to talk about actors, ranging across a pretty broad span of time, who I think might have gotten closer.  With the right script.  The right co-stars.  The right director.  The right producer.  The right timing.  Sheahright.

(All the while aware that I’ve got one more novel to review here, but allow me this one last diversion before that part of the blog runs its course.)

Let’s run them down, one by one.

LEE MARVIN AS WALKER IN POINT BLANK (1967):

Though an argument could be made for #2 on this list, Lee Marvin should probably be considered the first actor who tried to play Parker.  (I don’t know what Anna Karina was trying to do, and judging by what I’ve read about the filming of Made In USA, neither did she.)

Does Parker have prematurely white hair?  No, and he probably doesn’t have blue eyes, though ‘onyx’ is a touch ambiguous.  Details.  Marvin’s face, his body language, his gaze, and most of all his voice, set the benchmark all subsequent interpretations have fallen short of.

Marvin, as he later indicated, was in a disturbed abstracted emotional state when he made Point Blank, because his marriage had broken up (there is some reason to think Westlake’s first marriage was getting rocky when he wrote The Hunter; it ended shortly before Marvin’s did).

After toiling in obscurity for years, he became an A-Lister almost overnight, an Oscar winner, the guy everybody wanted.  He’d already been through hell in the Pacific, and later he made a movie by that name.  There are things no acting class can teach you.  Life is the ultimate Method.

I’ve already talked plenty elsewhere about what I admire and deprecate in this film.  Marvin bears equal responsibility for both.  He had so much clout by then, he could give John Boorman final cut.  He trusted Boorman, and was willing to experiment.  Boorman, grateful beyond measure, was willing to take ad-libs (Walker blankly repeating what somebody says to him, as if it’s meaningless) and incorporate them into the film, often to good effect.

The end result is very very very strange.  Compellingly so.  Also confusingly.  At the end of the day, I don’t believe this film has anything at all to say.  It’s all surface.  But what surface.  You could fill an art gallery with nothing but stills from this movie.  And at the center of it is a performance like no other.

Without any pressure to create a character with comprehensible human motivations (since Walker may in fact be a ghost, or else having a fever dream of vengeance as he lies dying on Alcatraz Island), Marvin was free to just react–or not react.  To sit and stare at nothing at all, while we wonder what he’s thinking about.  To walk down a hallway with cold dead eyes, like he’s Murder Incarnate, which he well might be (even though he never directly kills anyone in the whole movie).

He doesn’t explain himself.  He doesn’t share anything with  us.  He doesn’t seem human.  He doesn’t react to anything he encounters in the story as a normal man would. Except Angie Dickinson, and that works fine for Parker too.  It’s just–perfect.  The script isn’t, but hey, quibbling.

If you combined his performance as Walker with his characters in The Dirty Dozen (a military heist film, Marvin as the planner, putting together a string, pulling a job), and his laconic hitman in Don Siegel’s The Killers, you see an actor uniquely outfitted to play this character.  And with no further interest in playing him.  To Marvin, this was just an interesting gig.  That ended when Boorman yelled “That’s a wrap!”

He flat out refused to do sequels (don’t hold your breath waiting for Dirty Dozen 2, though they never do stop remaking it under other names).  So even if Point Blank had done Godfather numbers at the box office, he wouldn’t have done another. A sequel to Point Blank wouldn’t have made any narrative sense, anyhow.  Which would at least have been consistent with the first film.

Marvin’s professional standards and perverse free-roving individualism–the things that make him resemble Parker even when he’s not playing Parker–made him unattainable for any further adaptations.  If there was ever an actor too well-suited to the role of Parker, Lee Marvin was it.

However, if there was ever someone genetically engineered to play Parker it was–

MICHEL CONSTANTIN AS GEORGES IN MISE A SAC (1967):

Not a lot of people out there have seen Mise a Sac (aka Pillaged) in a theater.  I’m one of them, and it was a beautiful pristine print from Le Cinematheque Francaise, on loan to the Museum of Modern Art, with subtitles projected below the screen, a large appreciative audience present.

I had a cold, but figured the chance might never come again, and so far, it hasn’t.  I sucked on Mentholyptus to keep coughing to a minimum, become far too engrossed to worry about bronchitis setting in, and far as I’m concerned, this is the best and truest adaptation of anything Westlake ever wrote.  And one of the most cunningly subversive crime films ever.

Westlake himself only saw it when visiting someone in France–they had taped it off TV.  No subtitles.  He said it looked good.  Not as good as Point Blank, which he always said was the best (not his favorite, that’s different). He had nothing to say about Michel Constantin’s performance.  I’m not sure his performance is really the point here.  It’s more about his presence.

Constantin was one of those guys who almost never got to play the lead.  He was mainly in crime films, a second banana in most–this is probably as close to a starring role as he ever got.  6’1, an inch shorter than Marvin, but that, combined with his lean build, craggy facial features, and a certain je ne sais quois, made him an eerie monstrous figure, towering over most of his cast mates.

Read that description of Parker up top.  Other than his thick black hair (which matches descriptions from later books) he’s a direct match.  Ugly, but in a way that probably gave a lot of women vibrations above their nylons.

He’s just–right.  I can’t explain it.  He doesn’t look like a movie star.  He doesn’t act like a movie star.  Because he’s not a movie star.  He’s some guy off the street who got tapped on the shoulder, and said “Pourquoi pas?”   (I bet he didn’t get paid like a movie star either.)

There are moments when he’s just walking down a street, his hands at his sides, and if you’re a Stark reader, you almost gasp.  He’s not somebody they pulled out of central casting.  He’s somebody they pulled off the cover of a vintage crime paperback.  You can’t believe this guy exists in three dimensions.  And then, as I said in my earlier review of this movie, he opens his mouth and ruins everything.  Well, he’s got to say what the script tells him to, right?  And in French, to boot.

Like I said, he wasn’t a star.  He would have had basically no clout on set, and maybe he never wanted any.  He wasn’t the kind of actor who gets called upon to act, which would be good, if the director knew what to do with that.  This is the best adaptation of a Parker story by far, but it’s a Parker story where Parker, as we know him, doesn’t exist.

What we have in his place is a workaday French thief, tough but not ruthless, operating out in the provinces. Laid-back, professional, courteous, jokes with his colleagues, and only shows flashes of the explosive violence we associate with the character he’s derived from.  This is an ensemble piece, no big names in the cast, no one player dominating. It works for the story being told.  But that story has been edited.

I believe Alain Cavalier understood what Westlake was doing with The Score, but he wasn’t quite doing the same thing.  He’s better at the visual end of things than he is at the dialogue (though he’s got a hell of a writer collaborating with him on the script, in Claude Sautet).

I don’t know if he could have done a heist film where they got the money and lived to spend it, and never even thought of reforming, but I can’t say I’ve seen a single French heist film where that happened.  Existentialism has a morality all its own.  And it’s not Starkian morality.  Damn Sartres, anyway.

Cavalier, for whatever reason, doesn’t want to make Parker the criminal juggernaut he is in the books.  He’s much more interested in Edgar, the character filling in for Edgars, the one whose vendetta against a town drives the plot.  I don’t agree, but I can’t really argue  That’s what most filmmakers would do in his place, unless they had a major star playing Parker, and he doesn’t.

It’s one novel, filmed out of sequence.  How much time does he have to explain Georges to us?  Very little, so he doesn’t try.  Would it be better if we got some backstory, flashbacks, monologues, telling us why this guy robs banks and jewelry stores for a living?  It would be much worse.  You have to respect the integrity of the story being told, which in its turn, respects the book it’s riffing on, much more than Boorman respected The Hunter, or John Flynn The Outfit.

Say what you will about how Cavalier used his version of Parker, he picked the right guy to play him.  And then didn’t give him enough to do, or the right direction as to how he should do it.  Frustrating.  Because I don’t think Constantin would have needed much coaching at all to hit that elusive bullseye, dead solid center.

There’s something about him–this watchful quality.  Which is, you know, the mark of a good actor–much more how you listen than how you talk.  There’s this great sense of situational awareness about Georges, an understanding that yeah, these are his fellow pros, the men he has to trust his freedom with, and he better not take his eyes off them for a minute.  He leans in when he’s talking to them, he enjoys their company–but he never lets his guard down–until one crucial moment.  And he becomes the second actor playing Parker to get knocked on his keister by some boob he should be able to take apart one-handed.  Oh well.  Nothing’s perfect.

I have my problems with the way this movie wraps up (the way most heist movies wrap up).  But I like the final moments of it very much, and I bet Westlake did too.

It’s been frustrating for me to have to describe this movie to fellow enthusiasts who haven’t seen it.  No DVD in the offing, there may be issues with the rights.  But it’s been shown on TV many times (though never in the U.S. that I know of), and maybe you should sit down now.  You probably are sitting down.  You ready for this?

Somebody uploaded the entire movie to YouTube last year.    Crappy print. Pretty sure this was originally taped off TV with a VCR, like the version Westlake watched, only this one has subtitles.  May have been edited for broadcast.  But this is probably as good as it gets for now.  And watching a bit of it just now, my estimation of Constantin’s Parker went up, not down.  The movie’s opinion of him may be wrong, but he’s just right.

But suppose they were to cast somebody who was super-tough in real life–on the gridiron, no less.  And given that many of Parker’s earliest fans were black men, isn’t it only fair that a black man get to play him?  Wouldn’t it be cool if he had an eclectic troupe of brilliant quirky thespians supporting his criminal venture?  Well, it would have been, if not for the script.  Again.

JIM BROWN AS McCLAIN IN THE SPLIT (1968):

The worst of the five films I’m looking at here, The Split coulda woulda shoulda been the best.  An adaptation of what many consider the best book of the series, I’d be willing to make all kinds of allowances for it, given the talent assembled here.  They transplanted the action west again, but okay (insert eyeroll here).  They spend too much time on the stadium heist, but that’s what they bought the book for.  They don’t have Little Bob Negli, but Peter Dinklage wasn’t born yet–although, Mickey Rooney would have been a cool substitute, and there have always been brilliant actors who happened to be vertically challenged.

The heart of the story being adapted was the string banding together to try and get their money back–not most of them banding together to try and take out the character standing in for Parker, as happens in the movie.  Forming what you might almost call a lynch mob.  Which is unfortunate, given that the character standing in for Parker is played by Jim Brown.

I mean, was this really necessary?

jim-brown-jack-klugman-the-split-1968-BP8D6W

I’m a fan of Jim Brown.  Not as a football player.  I don’t watch football.  Even if I did, he retired when I was in kindergarten.  I’d probably have enjoyed his Lacrosse game more (he did too).

I’m a fan of Jim Brown the actor.  Have been most of my life.  I think he could have been a great Parker.  A good actor. Not a fancy one.  As an actor, he was basic; intense, physically and sometimes emotionally intimidating, dangerously attractive to women, and at all times he displayed a quiet brooding intelligence, along with a general disregard for convention.

Parker isn’t white.  Parker isn’t black.  Parker’s just Parker.  He has no racial identity, because only humans believe in race, and he’s not one.  Could they have written a  role for a black actor–in the late 60’s–with an icon like Brown–that worked that way?  Probably not, but it would have been something to see.

Personally, I think Jim Brown always saw himself as Jim Brown first, everything else second.  Part of equal rights is the right to be yourself.  Not saying he didn’t or doesn’t care about civil rights, that he didn’t identify with the people he came from–he did, and does, he’s still a leader in that area today, in his 80’s–but he’s not so easily pigeonholed, and he always goes his own way.  Doesn’t give a damn what people think.

I believe he could have gotten inside the Parker we see in The Seventh, in a way few other actors ever could.  But the character in that novel never made it into the script.  Not even close.

And of course, how are they going to have Jim Brown confront a white cop in his own home, with his wife and kids nearby, without everybody going crazy?  Parker may not care about race, but we still do.  How are we supposed to believe the cops in a small city in upstate New York won’t grab (or gun down) a Parker who looks like Jim Brown on general principle, after a major robbery?  Would Vegas be much different?  I doubt it.

So they made it about war among the criminals, and they divide along racial lines, because that’s what seems to make sense.  Hey, Stark didn’t write a book with an integrated string until the 21st century–hardly anyone did.  Ocean’s 11 was so goofy, nobody took it serious, and Sammy was part of the pack.  There was Odds Against Tomorrow, with Poitier, but Poitier got to break all the rules because he was Poitier.

Dortmunder got integrated in the early 70’s because that’s comedy, and the rules are different.  But when they adapted that book for the movies, they cast Frank McRae as Herman X. I love him dearly, but that’s terrible casting.  And that was the least of it.  There are far worse Westlake adaptations than The Split, you know.

But this is the worst of the five films I’m looking at here, and all the more egregious because they had some of the best actors on the scene then–Klugman, Sutherland, Borgnine, Oates, Carroll, Julie Harris for crying out loud–a Quincy Jones score to boot–and they wasted it all, just like they wasted Jim Brown.  And not just in this movie.  Hollywood threw away Brown’s potential, over and over again, because they already had Sidney Poitier, and there wasn’t room for another one (and Brown wasn’t as subtle–or socially acceptable–as Poitier).

But in certain scenes in this film–like when McClain is testing out his potential string members–you see what could have been.  Just professionals, sizing each other up, never quite trusting each other, but ready to work together, to get their split.  Race doesn’t enter into it, because the only color they see is green.

And imagine him standing on top of that unfinished building, in the dark, over the Amateur’s dead body, realizing he got the same money he would have gotten if everything had gone just right.  Imagine Jim Brown’s laughter in the darkness. Coulda, shoulda, woulda.  Oh well.

From a talented actor who made it on the basis of his superb physical gifts to one of almost unequaled thespian achievement–and guess what?  Now Parker is a short bald redneck who wants to avenge his brother.  He’s versatile, give him that.

ROBERT DUVALL AS MACKLIN IN THE OUTFIT (1973):

I’ve made my problems with this movie known in the past, no need to dwell on it in depth here.  It has its cult, and I can see why, yet I still dissent vigorously. The Outfit is a decent drive-in flick, with some fine performances, an intriguing gritty atmosphere, and a script that does a fair to middling job of invoking the underground criminal subculture that Stark wrote about.  As a film, I rank it far far below both Point Blank and Mise a Sac.

So why is it here?  Because Duvall.  Is there a greater actor?  Probably not.  Could there be anyone more constitutionally unsuited to playing a man described as big, tall, shaggy, and irresistible to women?  You tell me.

Westlake spoke well of this film, calling it his favorite of the Parker adaptations, while still saying Point Blank was the best movie as a movie.  He didn’t say much about Duvall’s performance, that I can find.  Diplomacy.  He knew damned well that was not his character up on screen, but who wouldn’t be flattered that an actor that good would even want to play somebody you created–even as you waited in vain to hear him speak a single line you wrote?

What Duvall got right was Parker’s focus, his tunnel vision, the way he becomes the job he’s doing until it’s done, and everything else in him shuts down for a while.  He could identify with that (I suspect he’s very much like that himself, as was Westlake).  There are scenes in The Outfit where Macklin braces gangsters and treats them like punks.  But he’s too emotional.  He justifies his brutality in various ways.  He’s a misogynist and a knight errant at the same time.  He’s a psychopath with a professional veneer.

And his victory makes no sense, because honestly, he’s not that good at this.  No strategy, not even tactics.  He just walks into places and shoots people.  That’s not Duvall’s fault.  John Flynn was basically half a filmmaker.  The half that’s there is very good.  It’s not enough.

Again, there are moments, in spite of Duvall looking nothing like Parker, where you can still see the character glancing out for a moment–sitting at a bar, looking at nothing, as Marvin did–but Marvin trusted that.  He knew his face was so magnetic, he didn’t have to come up with bits of business to make him look at us.  Duvall knew he’d never have that kind of charisma.  If he was going to be a star, he’d have to make it on acting alone.  It’s a testament to his genius that he did.  But it doesn’t work here.

Duvall used the Method, and the Method says you have to know exactly what your character is feeling.  No human, not even Westlake writing as Stark, could ever fully comprehend what Parker is feeling.  There’s no mystery to Macklin.  But without that mystery, he’s an ill-conceived anachronism.  A heister out of the 30’s who never learned from his mistakes.  Just a good old boy who went wrong.  I’d award points for him not being dead or jailed at the end, but that’s true of all the Parkers.

Let’s run a comparison test.  Here’s Duvall walking down a hallway with murder in his mind–

Here’s Marvin,–

See the difference?  One is just playing the character.  The other is inhabiting him.  Duvall doesn’t understand Parker.  Maybe Marvin doesn’t either, on a conscious level.  But the way Duvall works, he can’t play anyone he doesn’t understand on a conscious level.  Marvin could.  And he was also big and shaggy and sexually charismatic.  Nobody said life was fair.  Parker sure never said that.

(And what I say is that if you watch the beginning of Mise a Sac, Constantin walks the walk better than either of them. If only he could talk the talk.  The total package.  So hard to find.)

And if anybody ever proved life is not fair, it’s–

MEL GIBSON AS PORTER IN PAYBACK (1999)

I have to give the film industry credit for one thing–they stuck to the one name thing when adapting these books.  Westlake wouldn’t let them call any of these guys Parker (he claimed that was about money, and I don’t believe him), but having one name has always appealed to show people (Vegas, baby, Vegas!), so they stuck with it.  Mind you, it’s always easy to tell if it’s a first or last name in the movies, so they even got that wrong, but I want to be positive where I can.

Of the five performances I’m ranking here, Gibson’s is last and least–but not bad. I’m prejudiced in this matter.  I don’t like the guy.  I think he’s talented.  I also think he’s got more and worse issues than your average major movie star–no small achievement.  But you judge an actor’s performance, like any artistic endeavor, on the merits.  And Gibson’s Parker is not bereft of merit.  He shows us a few things we haven’t seen before.

This is not so much a remake of Point Blank as a new interpretation of The Hunter, that went through the wash a few times after Brian Helgeland wrote it. But it focuses on a lot of the same crucial scenes in the book.  And like the earlier film, it chooses to have the protagonist’s wife betray him, not out of fear for her life, as Stark had it, but because she wanted to–with reservations.  In both cases, she’s remorseful afterwards, in both cases she kills herself because of that, but it was her choice.  (And never very well explained, in either film).

And in both cases, the character standing in for Parker is, we have to say, a lot gentler with her than Parker was with Lynn.  I question whether any filmmaker would ever faithfully adapt that part of Stark’s novel.  It’s too damn stark.  Parker slaps her to the floor, then tells her to take too many pills, and she does (because she’s addicted to him, far more than the pills she’s taking, and he’s made it clear she’s getting no more of him.)

Then he mutilates her face, so her corpse won’t be identified, and dumps her in the park.  But, we’re made to know, he could never have killed her.   Not even if she was coming at him with a knife.  Not even if she betrayed him to Mal again.  She was his, he was hers, and while he may no longer love her, he fears her, as he fears no one else.  He didn’t believe she could ever turn on him, but she did.  He has not fully recovered by the end of that book–to some degree, the recovery process extends all the way to The Rare Coin Score. Time wounds all heels.

In Payback, as in The Hunter, there’s another woman.  Walker and Porter each get seriously involved with a beautiful blonde they knew from before (the wife’s sister in the first movie, a call girl Porter used to drive in the second), with Lynn’s body barely cold.  The second version is closer to the book, but not by much.

Gibson really got into his performance here.  I happen to think it’s his best, in any movie of his I’ve seen.  Because it’s the most honest.  Most of his characterizations are extremely dishonest–which is by design.  He’s hawking a product, not telling the truth.  He’s appealing to that part of us that wants to perpetrate mayhem and still feel like a good person, and there’s always a market for that.

Even when he’s a psycho trigger happy cop, he’s a psycho trigger happy cop who is a total sweetheart to everybody but bad guys.  Somebody you’d trust with your beautiful teenage daughter who has a crush on him.  This is not who Mel Gibson is, but it’s who he typically plays.

His Parker is a decent enough guy to women he cares about if more than a bit rough around the edges–okay, consistent with the book character.  He’s wordier than I’d prefer in explaining himself to Maria Bello’s Rosie (now there’s somebody who gives honest performances), but they’re sugaring the pill for the audience, I get it.

They sugar the pill because while Porter is very  much a human being, not a wolf in human form, he’s still a human being who has nothing resembling a proper conscience.  He feels no guilt about stealing, killing, torturing.  He assumes everybody is as amoral as he is, and he’s usually right.

He sneers when somebody tries to attach some higher motive to his cash-based vendetta.  “Stop it, I’m gettin’ misty.”  Not something Parker would say.  But I applaud the sentiment.  Porter’s not a hypocrite.  And at times, playing him, neither is Gibson.  Works for both of them.

I applaud the dialogue, most of all.  The best of any Stark adaptation, which tracks, because much of it was ripped right from the pages of Stark’s book.  It was that dialogue, delivered with flair and zero apologies, that caught my attention when I started catching this one on TV.  It’s that dialogue that made me curious to read the originals.  It’s that dialogue that is responsible for this blog’s existence. The dialogue, and the verve with which the cast delivers it.

Most of the other actors in Payback (all of them very fine) put a bit of a wink into their dialogue–not Gibson.  Deadpan, and dead serious.  Give me my money or I’ll kill you.  That’s right.  Somebody says, “They’ll kill me if I help you” and he rejoins “What do you think I’m going to do to you?  Worry about me.”  That’s damn right.  And from the book.  And Gibson means every word of it.

He’s loving the chance, for once, to play the violent selfish vengeful dark-hearted bastard he really is, deep down inside.  (Okay, I’ve never met him, but I surmise, from a safe distance.)

An actor needs that leverage.  Some part of him or her that resonates with the character he or she is playing.  This is Gibson’s point of access.  And it works.  Up to a point.

See, the problem is, he enjoys it too much.  Both causing pain, and receiving it.  There are no scenes in The Hunter where Parker is tortured.  Nor were there any such scenes in the original screenplay for this movie.  Gibson wanted to get tortured.  He’s into that.

Parker is neither a sadist nor a masochist.  Gibson’s both.  Oh please, even if you never saw that Jew-baiting passion play he lensed (that ends with Jesus back from the dead, and looking to kick ass), you know that already.  It’s not any kind of secret.

He’s created a character who works on his own anti-heroic terms, better than any of Gibson’s other characters.  Because this time he doesn’t have to pretend to be a hero.  It must have been a huge relief, but the box office was only okay by his standards, so he went back to what he knew.  Pity.

Unlike Marvin, he can’t get into the enigma of Parker, the mystery–only the fantasy of being tougher, meaner, and more devious than any of his antagonists.  It’s a sharp performance, but also a shallow one, and that’s what the screenplay called for, even before it got tinkered with, so can’t really blame him for that.  I don’t think he had any problem with the superficiality of the role, though.  If he ever noticed it.

The Chandler-esque offscreen narration he recites (that he had written for him, when he took control of the picture), while probably a good device to keep the audience engaged, and evoke the genre, isn’t something Parker would ever do.  Parker’s not going to explain himself.  To anyone.  Ever.  Least of all us.  Gibson, at the end of the day, still wants us to think of him as a nice guy.  Duvall’s performance may present even worse problems, but it’s got integrity.  Mel Gibson knows not the meaning of that word.

And of course Gibson’s short.  And too damn good-looking.  See what I mean about life being unfair?  At least he’s got all his hair.  (Even more unfair.)

While I think each performance needs to be judged in its own right, having done so, I find, somewhat to my chagrin, that my personal preference runs in strict chronological order–Marvin, Constantin, Brown (more for what could have been than what was), Duvall, and Gibson.  As to the other three, they weren’t playing any version of Parker, far as I’m concerned, least of all the one billed as Parker.

There’s no reason to think Hollywood will give Parker another go after the Statham film. There’s also no reason to think they couldn’t do even worse next time.  But I can’t convince myself that there couldn’t have been something better.

And next time, it’s the could have beens I’m going to look at.  Actors who might have played Parker, but didn’t.  You’ll guess some of the names I’m thinking of.  Not all of them, I bet.

7 Comments

Filed under Donald Westlake, Donald Westlake film adaptations, Donald Westlake novels, Parker film adaptations, Parker Novels, Richard Stark, Uncategorized

Review: Dirty Money, Part 3

hunter_germany_1

Parker took the Bobcat from his pocket and put it on the table, then left it there with his hands resting on the tabletop to both sides, not too close.  “That’s who I am,” he said.  “You Oscar’s brother?”

The guy stared at the gun, not afraid of it, but as though waiting to see it move.  “No,” he said, not looking up.  “I got no brothers named Oscar.”

“Well, how important is Oscar to you, then?  Important enough to die for?”

Now the guy did meet Parker’s eyes, and his own were scornful.  “The only thing you’re gonna shoot off in here is your mouth,” he said.  “You don’t want a lotta noise to wake the dog.”

Parker picked up the Bobcat and pushed its barrel into the guy’s sternum, just below the rib cage.  “In my experience,” he said, “with a little gun like this, a body like yours makes a pretty good silencer.”

The money inside the boxes was all banded into stacks of fifty bills, always of the same denomination.  The bands, two-inch-wide strips of pale yellow paper, were marked DEER HILL BANK, DEER HILL, MA.  The stacks made a tight fit inside the boxes.

It turned out to be easiest to dump a box over, empty the money onto the floor of the van, and then stuff it all into the Hefty bags.  The emptied box, with its cover restored, would be stacked with the others in the bed of the pickup.

As they worked, McWhitney said, “It’s a pity about this stuff.  Look how beautiful it is.”

“It’ll tempt you,” Parker said.  “But it’s got a disease.”

April 27th, 2008.  Not quite three years shy of a half century from when Donald Westlake first showed Lawrence Block a draft of The Hunter, Richard Stark got his last New York Times book review, courtesy of Marilyn Stasio.

The nice thing about the rather nasty stories Richard Stark (a k a Donald E. Westlake) writes about a career criminal named Parker is that none of the significant characters is ever innocent. Which is why it’s so easy to laugh when their intricate schemes begin to unravel, as happened in “Nobody Runs Forever” after Parker’s gang stashed the loot from a bank job in the choir loft of an abandoned country church — and couldn’t get it out. Although he’s still being pursued by the vigilant detective Gwen Reversa and the odd reporter, Parker gives criminality another shot in DIRTY MONEY (Grand Central, $23.99), under pressure from Sandra Loscalzo, an aggressive bounty hunter who’s even less trustworthy than the killers and con men she stalks for a living. Everyone in this merry misadventure ends up at Bosky Rounds, a quaint bed-and-breakfast that looks like the cover art for Yankee magazine — something to bear in mind on leaf-peeping excursions to picturesque New England villages.

Sometimes I’ve wondered if Stasio was reading the same books as me, but no two people have ever read the same book, any more than one person reads the same book twice.  (I come from the Heraclitus school of book reviewing).

Me, I don’t think Stark, at any time, is encouraging us to laugh at Parker–with him, maybe.  To sport a rueful grin at how the best laid plans of wolves and men gang aft agley, absolutely.  That goes with the territory. That’s what the heist subgenre is all about, going back to The Asphalt Jungle, or if you please, Jason and the Argonauts.

But if that grin doesn’t come with a glimmer of recognition as to how this insight applies just as much to us and our ostensibly more honest endeavors, you sure haven’t learned much from these books.  I’m all for entertainment, but entertainment that doesn’t on some level enlighten probably isn’t worth the time it took to peruse.  I mean, unless you’re planning to live forever.

Stasio couldn’t know that this was the last we’d hear from Richard Stark, that Donald E. Westlake would be dead in a little over eight months.  He sure wasn’t making any plans to live forever.  But he was making plans.   Right to the end.

I agree with her that nobody in these novels is ever innocent–and how many in real life ever are?  I’m not.  Why, may I ask, are so many innocent people enjoying stories about murder, mayhem, vengeance, betrayal and pillage?  And I don’t just mean on cable news.  Or in the bible.

I don’t rule out that there’s truly innocent people in the world, or at least truly good people, but doesn’t seem to me they’d constitute much of an audience.  Whether they were shelling out thirty-five cents for The Hunter in ’62, or $23.99 for Dirty Money in ’08, the publisher would go bankrupt if the readership was composed of saints.

No, I think the enduring popularity of these books attests to the fact that we know (and the saints most of all)  that we’re none of us all that innocent, and we’re still waiting nervously for some kind of law to catch up with us, and it will, never fear.  (My money’s on thermodynamics.)

But in the meantime, we’ve still got plans.  Most of which don’t work out half so well as Parker’s.  Truth is, Ms. Stasio, we’re not laughing at him at all.  We’re envying him.  His coolness under pressure, his lack of envy, fear, prejudice, treachery.  His matter-of-fact reaction to every setback, coupled with a determination to find the problem and fix it.  His patience.  His pragmatism.  His perseverance.  In short, his professionalism.

It seems perverse to say out loud, but these books have been at least as much about virtue as vice.  Whatever you do in life, do it well, as if how you perform your chosen task matters no less than your compensation for performing it, if indeed you get any.  Most of us don’t have such exciting jobs as Parker, to be sure.  But hey, we get retirement plans and health insurance.  Some of us.  For now.

If we’re laughing at anyone in these books, it’s those of inferior professionalism, or none at all.  Comparing their garrulous gamesmanship to the taciturn protagonist who is playing at nothing, because life isn’t a game, and neither is death.  That’s been the point of Parker, all along.  Made better in some books than others, and this last book is far from the best, but that’s because the professional behind them all is starting to lose his grip on the wheel.  Yet he refuses to call it a day.  He’ll know it’s time to lay down tools when the whistle blows.  Not before.

This is a flawed faltering book at points, but compelling all the same, like the twenty-three before it.  In Part Four, feeling the law closing in on him, that part of Westlake that is Richard Stark produces what I’d call, on reflection, a tightly-focused novella within a novel–to close out the day’s work.  Laying the groundwork for more books, that we’ll never read, because the whistle blew.  In Mexico.  And wouldn’t you know I’d get to this one during Dia de los MuertasHay más tiempo que vida.  Adelante.

Part Four opens with Parker checking to see if anybody picks up at Julius Norte’s number in Florida–the guy who did such a good job making him into Daniel Parmitt, in Flashfire.  He’s dead, of course, but maybe somebody else is doing the high-end ID work there now?  Nope.  That office is closed.

He reaches Ed Mackey, through channels of course–Mackey doesn’t have a direct phone number.  (Remind us again why Parker does?)  Mackey gets back to him at the good old gas station phone booth near Colliver Pond, and hey, does this gas station have free road maps and a uniformed attendant who chirps “Fillerup?” and then he cleans your windshield?  Because if they’ve got an actual working phone booth, really should make the whole retro experience complete.

Mackey isn’t working for the time being–says Brenda wants him to stay home (what happened in Breakout might be leaning both of them in the direction of semi-retirement, but it’s nothing definite).   Parker says he just wants to know if Mackey knows anybody else as good as Norte.  Mackey says he’ll ask around, and a day later, he’s got the name of a guy outside Baltimore, who seems well-regarded in their circle.  Kazimierz Robbins.  Not a name you hear every day.

He fronts as an artist.  You call him, tell him you need a portrait painted.  You mention a name of somebody he knows, and it’s understood–you want a special portrait.  A new identity.  And for that, you really do need an artist.  Though there has probably never been anyone less sympathetic to the artistic temperament than Parker.

“You understand, my studio is not in my home.”

“Okay.”

“I use the daylight hours to do my work.  Artificial light is no good for realistic painting.”

“Okay.”

“These clumpers and streakers, they don’t care what the color is.  But I care.”

“That’s good.”

“So my consultations are at night, not to interfere with my work.  I return to my studio to discuss the client’s needs.  Could you come here tonight?”

“Tomorrow night.”

“That is also good.  Would nine o’clock be all right for you?”

“Yes.”

“Excellent.  And when you come here, sir, what is your name?”

“Willis.”

“Willis.” There was a hint of “v” in the name.  “We will see you then, Mr. Willis,” he said, and gave the address.

After that, he talks to Meany, at Cosmopolitan Beverages, about the deal that will make it possible for Parker to pay for his new identity and still have something left to live on.  The big boss, Joseph Albert, has okayed it.  They need to see a sample of the cash–say ten thousand, just to make sure this is the bank money.  Parker says fine, but they’ll pay one thousand to see the ten thousand, because that’s the deal.

He calls McWhitney, tells him to make the exchange, gives him the contact info, hangs up.  He’s made all these calls from that same gas station phone booth.  You’d think somebody there would notice what a regular customer he is.  At some point, he needs to upgrade more than just his ID.  Payphones can be tapped, particularly if you keep using the same one. (Also, how come he never hears a voice telling him he has to cough up more quarters?  Even the phone company is afraid to ask him for money.)

Claire has to drive him to see Robbins.  He lives in a small town called Vista, which does not exist, near Gunpowder Falls State Park, which does.  His studio is in a space that used to be a hardware store. Robbins is there, older, arthritic, tall, thin, slightly bent–Stark tells us he looks like a praying mantis.  Claire opts to stay in the car, but Robbins notices her, says it’s well she did not enter, since beautiful women are always a distraction to him.  He tells Parker to call him Robbins, since he dislikes hearing Americans mangle his first and true name.

As they walked down the long room, on an old floor of wide pine planks, Parker said, “Why didn’t you change the first name?”

“Ego,” Robbins said, and motioned for Parker to sit.  “Many are Robbins,, or my original name, Rudzik, but from earliest childhood Kazimierz has been me.”  Also sitting, he leaned forward onto his knees, peered at Parker, and said, “Tell me what you can.”

“I no longer have an identity,” Parker said, “that’s safe from the police.”

“Fingerprints?”

“If we’re at the point of fingerprints,” Parker said, “it’s already too late.  I need papers to keep me from getting that far.”

“And how secure must these be?” He gave a little finger wave and said, “What I mean is, you want more than a simple forged driver’s license.”

“I want to survive a police computer,” Parker said.  “I don’t have a passport; I want one.”

“A legitimate passport.”

“Everything legitimate.”

Robbins leaned back.  “Nothing is impossible,” he said.  “But everything is expensive.”

“I know that.”

Robbins says it will cost two hundred thousand dollars.  Cash.  Parker figured that would be about it.  Half in advance, of course.  And even the former Mr. Rudzik (a Polish name) is surprised to learn Parker brought the cash with him.  “You are serious!” he exclaims.  Well, yeah.

So Robbins is Polish, he grew up under communism, learned his trade well, still has contacts over there.  Infant mortality under communism was higher than Marx and Lenin would have liked to believe.  So he can find some short-lived boy, born around the same time as Parker, give Parker the identity the child never had the chance to use himself.  A cover story must be concocted to explain why Parker has no eastern European accent (ever wondered what accent he does have?)

He’ll apply for a Social Security card–protective coloration–one is reminded how Joe Sheer laughed for days when he got his card in the mail, for a name he’d made up. He laughed hard, but not long.

To get all this done, to make the new identity stick, he’ll need to pose as a Canadian representative of an American company.  Which means he’ll need to work with Cosmopolitan Beverages again.  Getting to be a habit.  He gives Robbins Meany’s phone number (Robbins would have preferred his email).  Parker and Claire have worked out a new first name for him, and Robbins will attend to the family name.

He goes out and gets the duffel–presumably the same one Tom Lindahl picked up at a mall in upstate New York.  Full of cash from a racetrack.  Parker’s entire share of that job.  He’s going all in on this.  He passes portraits of celebrities Robbins has painted, from photographs we assume, to maintain the front.  They all look guarded, watchful.

That’s Saturday.  Monday, he’s driving to Bayonne, home of Cosmopolitan Beverages, and Stark has a positive genius for capturing the inimitable ambience of that highly scenic locale, but we’ve covered that already in Firebreak.  He’s driving himself this time, since it’s a short hop.  He passes somebody with a bumper sticker saying DRIVE IT LIKE YOU STOLE IT, which to Parker means drive so the law won’t notice you.

He doesn’t have an appointment, but he’s never stood on ceremony when it comes to mobsters of any stripe.  The guy at the reception desk tries to give him the brush off, and Parker doesn’t hit him, just tosses the kid’s copy of Maxim on the floor, so it’s not as if he hasn’t acquired a modicum of social veneer.

He and Meany are still sparring whenever they meet.  Meany’s going to enjoy this bout in particular.

Meany said, “What can I do for you today?”

“You liked the sample.”

“It’s very nice money,” Meany said.  “Too bad it’s radioactive.”

“Do you still want to buy the rest of it?”

“If we can work out delivery,” Meany said.  “I got no more reason to trust you than you got to trust me.”

“You could give us reason to trust each other,” Parker said.

Meany gave him a sharp look.  “Is this something new?”

“Yes. How that money came to me, things went wrong.”

Meany’s smile was thin, but honestly amused. “I got that idea,” he said.

“At the end of it,” Parker told him, “my ID was just as radioactive as that money.”

“That’s too bad,” Meany said, not sounding sympathetic.  “So you’re a guy now can’t face a routine traffic stop, is that it?”

“I can’t do anything,” Parker told him.  “I’ve got to build a whole new deck.”

“I don’t get why you’re telling me all this.”

“For years now,” Parker told him, “I’ve been working for your office in Canada.”

Meany sat back, ready to enjoy the show. “Oh yeah?  That was you?”

“A guy named Robbins is gonna call you, ask for some employment records.  I know you do this kind of thing, you’ve got zips, you’ve got different kinds of people your payroll office doesn’t know a thing about.”

“People come into the country, people go back out of the country,” Meany said, and shrugged.  “It’s a service we perform.  They gotta have a good-looking story.”

“So do I.”

Meany wants to know why he’d agree to this.  Parker says it’s a finder’s fee, for bringing him this nice little bump in corporate earnings for the fiscal year.  If Meany won’t help him out, he can go to somebody else in Bayonne with all that nice money.  Cosmopolitan doesn’t have a monopoly on this kind of thing.

And why should this arrangement cultivate trust between them, Meany wants to know.

“You’re gonna know my new straight name,” Parker pointed out. “And how I got it.  So then we’ve both been  useful to each other, so we have a little more trust for each other.  And I know, if sometime you decide you don’t like me, you could wreck me.”

“I don’t like you.”

“We’ll try to live with that,” Parker said.

It’s a deal, if not quite an amicable one.  As to the exchange, two million in crisp new bank notes for two hundred thousand in more experienced money Parker & Co. can actually spend, Parker says they’ll use the ferry between Orient Point and New London.  Meany’s guy drives onto it with the 200k, somebody else drives if off the ferry, he rides back and forth until the car comes back with the two mil.  Parker can’t get his new ID if Meany doesn’t get the bank money.

(This creates a new level of vulnerability, as Parker noted.  He’s compromising his independent status, and with the very type of organization he’s fought two bloody wars with in past. But, you could argue, Meany already sent a hit man to the house at Colliver Pond, a few years back. He’s already got a handle on Parker, if he wants to  use it.

If Parker can abandon the house, as he might yet have to do, he can abandon a burned identity, and he has, many times before.  Meany knows from personal experience that if you shoot at Parker, you only get to miss once.  He was lucky to survive the last time. And he might have use for Parker in future.  But still–it’s a compromise Parker has never had to make before.  To even pretend to be somebody’s employee.  It’s hard to see how this ends well, but we’ll never see how it ends.)

Parker goes back to Claire, and gets some more money from one of the empty summer houses he uses as safe deposit boxes.  We’re told more than half the money from the racetrack heist is spent–come again?  Parker and Lindahl got a bit under 200k from Gro-More.  Lindahl packed the duffels, while Parker dealt with complications.  Tom was in a hurry, no time to count it out, but it’s hard to figure he would have given Parker much more than half the score, and Parker just gave Robbins 100k. Well, I mentioned the creative accounting already.  I make far worse errors when I’m tired. Some people don’t need to be tired to make fatal errors.

Claire tells Parker McWhitney left a message on their machine–reading between the lines, he’s calling for help.  Oscar Sidd is back, and McWhitney has the money.  If he doesn’t get there soon, the entire deal is shot.  He can feel this pushing the button in his head, the one that makes him kill, but he holds it in check.  He can’t afford a war right now.  But there’s going to be a skirmish.

He just wants a ride to the city, but Claire insists on driving him to Long Island–have to get to the bar before it closes.  He tells her to drop him off a block away.  She tells him she’ll have dinner in Manhattan, maybe catch a late movie, and he can call her cell if he needs anything.  It’s becoming increasingly clear Parker is the only person he knows who doesn’t have a cellphone yet.

He’s come heeled, but with his usual minimalist flair.  The final gun image.

Beretta_Model_21_In_Hand

(Beretta Bobcat .22, fires seven shots, weights twelve ounces.  Considered a ladies gun in some circles. Parker never moved in those circles.  Keeps it in a box of Bisquick.  Well, that tracks.  Imagine, if you will, how small it would look in his hand.  Just a tool to him.  Second Amendment?  What’s that?)

The bar is called McW, and it’s never been a runaway success, which is why the man it’s named after keeps resorting to armed robbery.  Parker can see some guys waiting outside in a Chevy Tahoe.  Waiting for the bar to close.  He wants to go over there and start shooting.  He controls it. He goes inside.

Other than McWhitney, there were four men in the bar.  On two stools toward the rear were a pair of fortyish guys in baseball caps, unzippered vinyl jackets, baggy jeans with streaks of plaster dust, and paint-streaked work boots; construction men extending the after-work beer a little too long, by the slow-motion way they talked and lifted their glasses and nodded their heads.

Closer along the bar was an older man in a snap-brim hat and light gray topcoat over a dark suit, with a small pepper-and-salt dog curled up asleep under the stool beneath him as he nursed a bronze-colored drink in a short squat glass and slowly read the New York Sun; a dog walker with an evening to kill.

(That could be me, except for the topcoat, the suit, the snap-brim hat, and I generally prefer a big dog.  Anyway, they don’t let dogs inside the bars in New York anymore.  And I wouldn’t use the Sun to wrap fish, even if it still existed outside cyberspace.  But there’s a time-stamp for you, if you care–that ill-fated rag started up in April 2002, folded a few months before Westlake did.  We already knew this story began after 9/11.  Not long after, going by the rapid response to the bank heist.  Fall of ’02 at the earliest, ’03 at the latest.  That’s where this Triptych begins and ends.)

Parker sees a heavy-set guy sitting alone at a table, in a tweed sports jacket, nursing a glass of club soda.  He’s not making it hard.  Parker tells Nelson he’ll have a beer, and sits down across from the guy.  You can see their initial exchange up top.  You can imagine how it would feel to have an angry Parker staring at you across a table, then shoving a gun into your ribs.  If the guy doesn’t wet himself, it’s only because he’s not drinking beer.

McWhitney comes over, and Parker tells him to take the guy’s gun out of his coat–a .357 Glock.  Size doesn’t matter, if you don’t know how to use it.  Or when.

The inside man being neutralized, McWhitney closes up.  When the coast is clear, Parker goes outside to the Tahoe, and shoots Oscar Sidd dead with the Glock.  The two guys with him decline to take exception to this.  Parker goes back inside, tells the heavy-set man that Oscar’s lying outside with a slug from his gun in him; he might want to do something about that, in case the cops show up.

Parker asks to use McWhitney’s phone, and calls Claire’s cell.  With bridge & tunnel traffic what it is, she’s probably not even  halfway to the city.  Tells her to come back, they’ll have dinner in the area, spend the night.  He’s not angry anymore.  (Horny, one would guess, but Claire can attend to that.)

Next morning, Parker goes to the bar, which is closed, but Nels is there anyway.  He’s reading the Daily News (that’s still around).  Also watching the TV news.  They just found Nick’s body in MA (and a few boxes of cash hidden under hymnals, though they don’t mention that).  So basically, Part Four has all been one long final Stark Rewind.  And it’s not done yet.

Nels is nervous.  About the hymn books he still has, about the truck with Holy Redeemer Choir painted on it, about anything that could link him to what happened over there.  So they deal with all that.  The gent who painted the words on the van is just as happy to paint them out again, no questions asked.  They pack the cash in Hefty bags, and the time passes amicably.  Time to get to the ferry soon.  Five chapters left.

McWhitney didn’t like they were bringing Sandra in for the exchange, but Parker wants somebody on their team who Meany’s people don’t already know about.  He doesn’t say out loud that she’s smarter and more effective than Nels, but that goes without saying at this point. It also helps that they have each others’ cell numbers, and again, Sandra warns of a tail–Oscar’s dead, but the people he brought in as back up aren’t ready to give up yet.

The exchange on the ferry goes fine.  Much smoother than a different mob-related exchange on an elevated subway platform–how many years ago?  Just about forty, going by the calendar, but Parker never paid much attention to those.

Job’s finally done.  They’ve got 200k in cash they can spend.  Parker can get his new ID stamped by Cosmopolitan.  Nels can just tend bar for a while (and maybe become Parker’s new mailbox?)  Sandra can wait for her reward money for Harbin’s body, and spend quality time with her girlfriend on Cape Cod.  And you didn’t think it would be that easy, did you?  Not after twenty-four novels.  Three chapters left.

McWhitney has the cash, and figuring to throw the hounds off the trail, says he’ll drive to his place the long way around from Connecticut, while Parker and Sandra take the ferry back to Long Island, and give Meany’s guy his Subaru with the bank money, completing the transaction.  Since the other guys are on the ferry, waiting their chance–oh damn–they got off.  They’re going after Nels.  And they still think he’s got millions.

McWhitney’s not answering his cell.  Sandra’s disgusted, ready to give up.  But there’s one possible way to track these guys–both the Chevy SUVs they used had dealer plates.  They’ve got an in with a dealership.  And Sandra always writes down the license number of any car that takes her interest.  Professional habit.  And she’s got contacts at the DMV.  DeRienzo Chevrolet, Long Island Avenue, Deer Park.

They’ll go over there, have some more diner food, maybe talk a bit more about frozen lakes, and wait for the Chevy to get dropped off.

Sandra frowned at the slow-moving traffic all around the.  They wouldn’t get clear of this herd from the ferry for another half hour or more, when they reached the beginning of the Expressway.  “You’re a strange guy to partner with,” she said.

“So are you.”

“Do me a favor.  Don’t kill anybody.”

“We’ll see.”

This dialogue’s a little too playful, too odd couple buddy action movie for me–Parker as played by Bruce Willis or George Clooney, Sandra maybe Michelle Pfeiffer or Kim Basinger–but hey, that could be fun.  Two chapters left.

When they go into the dealership, they pose as a married couple, looking for a family car, and you know Sandra’s the one selling it.  But seriously, how is this a place some two-bit wiseguys would be able to just show up and and borrow brand new rides with dealer plates to commit crimes with?  Let me just Google ‘organized crime, car dealerships, Long Is–man, that wasn’t hard at all.

Half a dozen car dealers were clustered along both sides of the wide road in this neighborhood, all of them proclaiming, either by banner or by neon sign, OPEN TIL 9!  All the dealerships were lit up like football stadiums, and in that glare the sheets of glass and chrome they featured all sparkled like treasure chests.  This was the heart of car country, servicing the afterwork automotive needs of the bedroom communities.

(And certain other communities, but they don’t put that in the TV ads.)

They wait around almost an hour before the Chevy Suburban shows, and much to their surprise, Nelson’s in the car, still alive.  Parker, the great detective, making his last bow, figures it out.  Sidd told them it was two million bucks.  Nels only had 200k.  They want him to tell them where the rest is.

Here’s the one problem with Sandra.  For all her talk before about how there’s no street, no line for her to cross, she still got raised respectably enough to go to college, she’s at least as much cop as crook, and she doesn’t want to cross the line between crook and killer, if she can help it.  She’d rather just watch the rough stuff, like she did the night of the armored car heist, then pitch in, and lose her cherry.  At some point, she’s going to have to choose, but for the present, Parker tells her to get the car.

McWhitney, no maiden he, makes his move before he sees Parker and Sandra, hitting two of the three guys, and going for the second one’s pistol (this is the same portly guy from the other night, who Parker humiliated–same gun too). The driver fires his gun in the air.  The salesman starts yelling “Not the model!”

Parker grazes the ear of the bulky guy with the Bobcat, McWhitney shoots one of his captors with the captured Glock, gets in the Suburban and drives.  Sandra picks up Parker in her Honda, and they leave, with the salesman still screaming about the damn model.  McWhitney’s headed back to his bar, probably still having no idea who just saved his ass.

They follow, but they don’t know Long Island that well, and may be the last to arrive on the scene.  If you’ve ever been to Long Island, this is totally believable.

Final chapter.  Up ahead of them, Nelson gets out of sight in the traffic.  Behind them, Parker spots the two remaining hoods in their own car (their deal with the dealership is presumably shot to hell, much like the dealership itself).  They seem to be taking a shortcut, and now all Parker and Sandra can do, without the aid of GPS, is get to the bar soon as they can, hope it’s not too late.

It’s all dark on the block when they get there.  The Suburban is parked outside.   The place is locked up, but Sandra’s got a set of lockpicks.  She took a class. Bit out of practice, but she gets them in.  They creep through cautiously, and they can hear Nels being interrogated.  If that’s the word.  Their idea seems to be ‘make him tell us where the  rest of the money is, tell him we’ll give him a share, then his share is a bullet.’  Nels isn’t that dumb.  He passes out.

One of them goes out to get water to revive him, Parker clubs him with the Bobcat, which for all its virtues, isn’t the right tool for that task.  Violence follows.  You’ve seen it before. Sandra tells Parker not to kill anyone if he doesn’t have to.  He already knows that, but guess what?

The bulky guy’s name is apparently Mike.  You know, the one Parker told at the bar that a fat body makes a good silencer if you press the gun right up against it. Right again. Good to know. The other one’s tied up.  Less than two pages left.  One last quote.

“Let’s see what Nels looks like.”

He didn’t look good, but he looked alive, and even groggily awake.  The two guys working him over had been eager but not professional, which meant they could bruise him and make him hurt, but couldn’t do more permanent damage unless they accidentally kiled him.  For instance, he still had all his fingernails.

Parker lifted him to his feet, saying “Can you walk?”

“Uuhh.  Where…”

With Parker’s help, McWhitney walked slowly toward the bedroom, as Parker told him, “One of them’s dead in the bar, the other one’s alive right there.  Tomorrow, you can deal with them both.  Right now, you lie down.  Sandra and me’ll split the money and get out of here.”

He helped McWhitney to lie back on the bed, then said to Sandra, “If we do this right, you can get me to Claire’s place by two in the morning.”

“What a good person I am.”

“If you leave me here,” the guy on the floor said, “he’ll kill me tomorrow morning.”

Parker looked at him. “So you’ve still got tonight,” he said.

That’s right.  And that’s all.

So many more questions than answers here.

Greg and I were sort of going round and round in the comments section about this one.  It doesn’t feel like a finale.  So many balls still in the air, many of which only got up there in the very last part of the book.  So yes, it does feel like there’s much more coming.  This dance is not done.

But that final line.  That feels like somebody who knows he’s writing on borrowed time.  And the loan’s about to come due.  And the repo man is parked outside.  That’s how it feels.  That’s how it’s supposed to feel.

Butcher’s Moon was one of the greatest finishes any series ever had, and I don’t just mean crime novels, and I don’t just mean print fiction, and I’m not sure I even need the qualifier.  (And yet, decades later, came eight more novels, and I wouldn’t have wanted to miss out on one of them, even Flashfire.)  And Westlake always said he never meant Butcher’s Moon to be the last one.  It was the last one until the next one, is all.

This finish, by contrast, is quite tame and uncertain by comparison.  And yet it feels more final, if only because we know–it’s the last one.  And we can only decide for ourselves how the story ends, or if.  Abrupt inconclusive conclusions were a Westlake trademark, that Stark shared with him, and this is no exception.

I see Sandra driving Parker back to Colliver Pond.  They head down the LIE (I didn’t pick that acronym), threading the needle through the heart of the city Donald Westlake first saw light in, until they past the sign saying “Last Exit in New York.”  You miss that turn-off, and guess what?  You’re on the George Washington Bridge.  Next stop New Jersey.

Parker’s eyes are dark, unreadable.  What is he thinking about?  Is he remembering a different trip across that bridge?   Back when he couldn’t afford a car?  But you know, probably not.  You or I would be remembering, so we project that on him.  We think we’re identifying with him.  We think it’s the same thing.

The lights of the city recede behind them, as they head into the northwestern corner of that very misunderstood state.  The sign says “Welcome To Sussex County” and before long they’re at the house.  Claire’s outlined in the doorway as they pull up.  Sandra called her cell.

A brief friendly chat, an offer of sustenance passed up, and Sandra’s headed back to her own Claire, on Cape Cod, with her share.  Her cherry still intact, but for how much longer?  Domesticated on the outside, wild on the inside.  How you gonna keep her down on the farm, now that she’s seen Paree?

Claire and Parker talk softly, and she goes inside.  He puts his split in the garage–Robbins will be getting most of it soon. He’ll need that new identity. He’ll need to work again before long. If he had a billion dollars, he’d still need to work. It’s who he is. It’s what he is. It’s all he is.

He goes out back, to look out on the lake.  It’s the middle of the night, dead quiet, no birds or crickets chirping in the cold.  He hears a rustle by the lakeshore, his eyes, quickly adjusted to the darkness, pick up a shape moving towards him.

Four legs. Bushy tail. Long pointed snout. Two sharp-pointed ears. Two yellow eyes, picking up the ambient light, shining at him. Sharp teeth. Grinning at him. He grins back.  They converse. Without words. Only humans need words.

 

How’s the hunting been on your side?

Not bad.  Just ate a cat.  Easy kill.  House pet.  I think maybe they turned it loose before they left. Where do they go in the winter, anyway?

Oh, other places.  Cities.  Full of light and noise.  Some of your folk are there too.  You’re better off here, I think.  

No doubt.  But you have to make a living, wherever you are.   You back from a hunt?

Yeah.  A hard one.  Complicated.  It’s always complicated with them.  They don’t know anything about themselves.  But they think they know everything.

Tell me about it.  You think they’ll last much longer? 

Maybe not.  

I, for one, would not miss them.  But I’d miss their cats. And the little dogs. Tasty.

Saw one just the other day you’d have enjoyed.  The big ones can be dangerous, though.

Yeah, I avoid them. Best be on my way. My mate’s waiting.

Mine too.  Good hunting.

Any hunt you survive is good.

That’s right.

 

They grin again, and the shape fades into the trees.  Parker walks to the back porch door, opens it, is about to go inside.

Then he turns.  He looks around.  Looks right in our direction.  Oh God. He can see us.

He studies us a moment.  He’s thinking to himself. Deciding whether we need to die or not.  Are we a threat?  Nah.  Harmless.  We just like to watch.

There’s amusement in his gaze. Maybe more like contempt.

I hope you people had fun with your words.  No more words now.  Good Night.

And for the very last time, he shuts the door in our faces.

Postscript: That cover image up top, below the two German editions for this book, is the first German edition of The Hunter.  Title translates to Now We’re Even.  Sehr gut! Though personally, I never saw Parker as Cary Grant.  Which begs a question, I suppose.  How do we see him?  Who do we cast in the movie playing in our heads?

Before I get to the next book in our queue–the last book in our queue–why don’t we talk about that a bit.  After all, we still have tonight.

 

(Part of Friday’s Forgotten Books)

29 Comments

Filed under Donald Westlake novels, Parker Novels, Richard Stark

Review: Dirty Money, Part 2

A bum?  Nick edged closer, and was astonished to see it was Parker.

What was Parker doing there?  He had come for the money, no other reason.

So where was his car?  Nick had been on both sides of the road and he hadn’t see any car.  Was it hidden somewhere?  Where?

He hunkered against the wall, across the room from Parker, trying to decide what to do, whether he should go look for the car, or wake Parker up to ask him where it was, or just kill him and keep moving, when Parker came awake.  Nick saw that Parker from the first instant was not surprised, not worried, not even to wake up and find somebody in the room with a gun in his hand.

The covers for the various editions of the final Parker novel are all quite decent, including the first edition from Grand Central.  Rivages turned up a fitting bit of criminal Trompe L’oeil, and we’ll see the usual two alternate takes from Germany next time.

But of the covers I was able to find, I must award top marks to Italy.  Maybe that abandoned chapel is too Gothic-looking for the white clapboard structure in the book (though it is named after a saint), but that somber tableau perfectly captures the underlying mood, even if we can’t be sure the figure standing there in the dark is Parker or Dalesia.  I’m going with Nick.  Guy deserves that much.

Like all Parker novels save one, Dirty Money is divided into four parts, one of which changes POV at least once every chapter, showing us the perspectives of people other than Parker who are in some way relevant to the plot.  Usually, this was Part Three, but in a few instances, it was Part Two, and this is one of those.

Because this book is taking place immediately after the events of the previous two books, there’s a lot of carry-over.  Four of the ten chapters are from the vantage point of a character introduced in Nobody Runs Forever, one from Ask The Parrot.  Only two new POV characters are introduced in Part Two, one cop and one crook, and neither amounts to much in the grand scheme of things.  In Parts Three and Four, a whole new group of players come in, as the story shifts from getting at the stashed loot to unloading and defending it.

I find all this less than satisfyingly organic and well-balanced, compared to most past novels in this series.  More than diverting, all the same.

And I’ve long found it remarkable that Westlake spent the last four or five years of his life working on what turned into three inter-connected books, the collective timeline of which probably runs no more than two or three weeks–not unlike the first four novels in the series, but even more chronologically compressed (and remember, he published the first eight Parker novels in about the same time it took him to come out with the last three.)

If Westlake had lived long enough for a 25th entry, would it have picked up where this left off, turning the Triptych into a Quadriptych?  (Which is what Stark turned the original Triptych into when he wrote The Mourner.)  Don’t you love rhetorical questions?  Almost as much as rambling drawn-out plot synopses, or you wouldn’t be here.  Not wanting to disappoint….

Remember Dr. Myron Madchen?  Who was going to provide Jake Beckham with an alibi for the armored car job?  He needed a share of the loot in order to leave his wife.  When that didn’t work out, he killed his wife, made it look like natural causes, and everybody was so intent on the robbery that he ended up having nothing to do with (because Jake was such a screw-up), a quiet little murder didn’t get much attention.  At no point, mind you, does he ever admit this to anyone, even himself.  But that’s what happened.

He’s preparing to start his new life, with his pretty young girlfriend, who will be leaving her abusive husband for him.  He doesn’t have to leave town now.  He can keep his old practice, his wife’s money, and the big comfortable house her money paid for.  Who says crime doesn’t pay?   He’s made out better from the heist than anybody.  Just one little catch.  His name’s Dalesia.

Nick’s sitting there in his home office, when Madchen turns the light on.  Nick tells him to turn it off.  They have some things to discuss.  Nick needs a place to hide out.  He figures this house will do just fine.  Conveniently, Madchen just gave his maid the week off.  That should be long enough.

If the good doctor won’t play ball with him, and Nick gets grabbed by the law, he’s going to play ball with them–which is going to include letting them know about how Madchen conspired to aid and abet armed robbery.  And maybe they should run an autopsy on the wife, just to be thorough.  But that won’t be necessary, will it?

Nick’s too nice for this gig, you know.  He belongs in a safe cozy Dortmunder novel.  He won’t threaten the doctor’s life in any convincing way (though the doctor thinks for a moment about giving Nick the same injection he gave the wife).  He even agrees not to steal Madchen’s car.  He stays in the room the doctor gives him, makes no trouble, leaves before Estrella the maid comes back–at which point all he asks for is a ride to the church the money is stowed at.  You think Parker would be that cooperative?

Circumstances are less cooperative.  A week wasn’t long enough.  The heat is still on.  Because Nick killed a Federal Marshal.  So now he doesn’t belong in a Dortmunder novel either.   Nowhere left to go.

(When Dr. Madchen drops Nick off, a few chapters further on, we never hear from him again.  There’s no reason to think he won’t live happily ever after with his lovely Isabelle, who is so grateful to him for giving her an escape hatch from her own miserable marriage, she won’t ask any inconvenient questions. Maybe her hurtful hubby will have a few, but we never meet him.

And I don’t think Stark gives a damn about who killed whom, but this doesn’t quite seem like Starkian morality to me.  The doctor got in way over his head, he put up a moral front while dealing with crooks, and he murdered his wife.  He’s not owning any of this. He’s the same weak-willed wuss he always was.  And he’s just going to slide home safe? Was this really the end of his arc?  Or was he going to show up again later, for some form of comeuppance?  In a book that never got written.)

Chapter 2, we meet up once more with Captain Robert Modale, of the New York State Police, the ranking trooper responsible for (among other things) the tiny town of Pooley, where Parker recently had a short profitable stay.  He’s been asked to come down and compare notes, and he thinks it’s a huge waste of time.  He’s staying at Bosky Rounds, where a room has suddenly opened up (safe trip home, Claire).  He sees Sandra, thinks maybe he recognizes her.  Sandra wasn’t in Ask The Parrot, so not sure what that’s about.

He and Reversa hit it off right away.  Both professionals, both observant, both quietly exasperated with the general run of human stupidity.  And best of all, when she first came into the room, looking much too young and pretty to be a detective, somebody introduced her by title, so he didn’t embarrass himself in front of her.

They agree the existing police sketch being used is inadequate.  Modale never questioned Parker as Reversa did, but he saw him in the course of the manhunt for the bank robber, that the bank robber ended up joining.  They join forces to come up with a more lifelike portrait.

The artist was a small irritable woman who worked in charcoal, smearing much of it on herself.  “I think,” Gwen Reversa told her, “the main thing wrong with the picture now is that it makes him look threatening.”

“That’s right,” Captain Modale said.

The artist, who wasn’t the one who’d done the original drawing, frowned at it.  “Yes, it is threatening,” she agreed.  “What should it be instead?”

“Watchful,” Gwen Reversa said.

“This man,” the captain said, gesturing at the picture, “is aggressive, he’s about to make some sort of move.  The real man doesn’t move first.  He watches you, he waits to see what you’re going to do.”

“But then,” Gwen Reversa said, “I suspect he’s very fast.”

“Absolutely.”

The artist pursed her lips.  “I’m not going to get all that into the picture.  Even a photograph wouldn’t get all that in.  Are the eyes all right?”

“Maybe,” Gwen Reversa said, “not so defined.”

“He’s not staring,” the captain said.  “He’s just looking.”

The artist signed.  “Very well,” she said, and opened her large sketch pad on the bank officer’s desk in this small side office next to the main HQ room.  “Let’s begin.”

Terry Mulcany shows up, talks about how he saw this man with this very good-looking woman, and the man kind of resembled the face on the wanted posters.  He can’t remember the name of the place he saw them at.  They show him the new sketch.  Bingo.

Time to check on Nelson McWhitney, still back on Long Island, who has obtained and customized a small truck, as Sandra suggested in Part One.  Soon he’ll be heading over to New England, but having a bit of time to kill, decides to set up a failsafe–in case he’s the only one who comes back from this trip, with all the cash.  He talks to a guy he knows, connected, named Oscar Sidd.  Tells him about the money.  Suggests that Oscar’s connections could arrange for the cash to be laundered.

This is dumb, of course.  Nels is not one of Life’s Deep Thinkers.  Naturally suspicious of everyone, which would be fine, but then why is he confiding in Oscar Sidd?  He insists he’s not planning a cross–but he’s talking as if somehow the whole pile might fall into his hands.  Maybe Parker and Sandra will try to cross him, and  he’ll be forced to kill them.  Yeah, and then he’ll turn out to be heir to the throne of Narnia.  C’mon.

Next chapter is from Terry Mulcany’s POV, and he’s so excited.  He’s going to have a really fantastic book to write about this true crime he helped solve.  (Working title: The Land Pirates.)  This chapter is only of interest because we learn the fate of Tom Lindahl, or rather, what fate he didn’t have.  Parker wondered, at the end of the last book, how far Tom would get.  Pretty far, as it turned out.

Detective Reversa asked “Tom Lindahl?  Who’s he?”

“A loner,” Modale said, “just about a hermit, living by himself in a little town over there.  For years he was a manager in charge of upkeep, buildings, all that, at a racetrack near there.  He got fired for some reason, had some kind of grudge.  When this fellow Ed Smith came long, I guess it was Tom’s opportunity at last to get revenge.  They robbed the track together.”

Detective Reversa said, “But they’re not still together.  You don’t think Lindahl came over here.”

“To tell you the truth,” Modale said, “I thought we’d pick up Lindahl within just two or three days.  He has no criminal record, no history of this sort of thing, you’d expect him to make nothing but mistakes.”

“Maybe,” Detective Reversa said, “our robber gave him a few good tips for hiding out. Unless, of course, he killed Lindahl once the robbery was done.”

“It doesn’t look that way,” Modale said. “They went in late last Sunday night, overpowered the guards, and made off with nearly two hundred thousand dollars in cash.  None of it traceable, I’m sorry to say.”

He ditched his car in Lexington Kentucky, near the bus station there.  Modale says he could be anywhere in the country by now, working on a new identity for himself.  Not living in anything like luxury, of course.  ~100k is not retirement money, and would he be able to get Social Security checks under a false name?  (Joe Sheer did.)

Point is, he got free.  Stark wants us to know that.  It wasn’t about the money for Lindahl, or even revenge; it was about leaving a failed life behind, starting fresh.  100k’s enough for that.  Well-earned, after the system failed him so badly.  All Terry can see is the sheer romance of it–but not, to his disappointment, the ‘triumph of the law at the end of the day’, so essential to any True Crime story.  Well no, and that didn’t happen with the corrupt track owners who screwed Tom and the entire legal system over, either.  But that’s a bit out of his journalistic niche, isn’t it.

Chapter 5 tells us Oscar Sidd is tailing McWhitney in his nondescript little sedan.  Nels may not be planning a cross, but he is.

Nothing much happens in Chapter 6, except Modale and Reversa part on terms of mutual respect and a shared desire that this Allen/Smith/Whoever gets locked up soon.  Terry tells Gwen he remembered the place he saw the guy had something to do with pears.  It’s on a date with her lawyer friend that she figures that out.  Bartlett.  Bosky Rounds.  (For all we know, Terry was thinking of Bosc pears, but never mind.)

Chapter 7 introduces us to Trooper Louise Rawburton, and her partner, Danny Oleski.  They’re being told by a superior that the roadblocks aren’t enough, and now they’re going to actively search for both the robbers and the presumably stashed loot from the robbery.  Louise and Danny have been assigned, among other things, to check out St. Dympna.  Sounds a bit sacrilegious, but I’ll bite–who her?

“She was supposed to be Irish.  Most churches with saints’ names are Roman Catholic, but we weren’t.  We were United Reformed.  Louise laughed and said, “The funny thing is, when they founded the church, they just wanted some unusual name to attract attention, so they picked St. Dympna, and then, too late, they found out she’s actually the patron saint of insanity.”

Danny looked at her.  “You’re putting me on.”

“I am not.  Turned out, there’s a mental hospital named for her in Belgium.  When I was a kid, that was the coolest thing, our church was named for the patron saint of crazy people.”

(There’s supposed to be an ‘h’ in her name somewhere, but you know Protestants–always editing things out.)

Chapter 8, Reversa shows up at Bosky Rounds, with the new improved wanted posters, and after she’s left, Mrs. Bartlett is forced to acknowledge that one of the robbers was a guest of hers in the near past.  Henry Willis.  And that lovely Claire Willis.  Mrs. Bartlett thought Henry was a sourpuss, but she adored Claire.

She wrestles with her conscience a while, and decides not to drop a dime on them.  It would be embarrassing to admit a bank robber was under her roof, for one thing.  But for another, she just can’t bring herself to get that sweet girl in trouble.  And this is why you should always be extra nice to people who work in the hospitality trade, folks.  Parker used to know that.  I guess having Claire means he doesn’t have to put up a pleasant affable front in hotels and such anymore.  That must be excruciating for him.

Chapter 9 is all Loscalzo/McWhitney, and I must say, it’s a delight.  They rub each other in just the right wrong way (she’s so simpatico with Parker, there’s no friction there at all).  She knows he got an Econoline van, dark green, good enough, and had the name of the ersatz church choir painted on it.  He does not know she’s decided to tail him all the way there in her car.

Good thing she did.  She spots the other tail–Oscar Sidd.  She knows all about nondescript vehicles as camouflage, and she knows a tail when she sees it.   She and Nels, being more techno-friendly than Parker, both have cellphones.  They exchanged numbers, and man this is getting modern!  Next thing you know they’ll be texting each other.  Not sure about FaceTime.

We get a little background on her as they drive–she did go to college, got her P.I. license shortly after she left (doesn’t say graduated–Westlake didn’t get the sheepskin either).  She worked the respectable side of her business a while, and found it deadly dull.  Roy Keenan was happy to show her the ropes of bounty hunting, then take credit for her brains.  She thought it was a good partnership, and she’s not the least bit sad that it’s over, because what would be the point?  Parker with a bit of polish (and not just on her nails).

Anyway, she’s got to deal with this shoofly. Better call Nels.

“You’ve got a tin can on your tail, you know about that?

“What?  Where are you?”

“Listen to me,  Nelson.  He’s in a nothing little car, two behind you.”

“Jesus Christ!”

“Tall bony guy in black, looks like he’s never had a good meal in his life.”

“That son of a bitch.”

“You know him, I take it.  Pal of yours?”

“Not any more.”

He offers to swat the fly, but she tells him keep the truck clean, she’ll handle the mess.  She gets out ahead of them both, and lies in wait, with her Taurus Tracker .17HMR–like Parker, she knows the value of the right tool for the job at hand.  A .45 for intimidation factor.  For a job like this, you want precision, which means a long barrel.  Might as well post an image.

hgtracker_1204a

Puts one right in Sidd’s tire as he goes by.  He loses control, knocks himself out on the windshield.  She and Nelson drive on to the church, and as they get there, they hear a shot.  This is where we came in.  Stark Rewind time.  With a twist.

Chapter 10 is from Dalesia’s perspective, and it’s not a happy one.  He’s on the run from the cops and  his former partners.  He’s looking into Parker’s eyes, there in the church, and all he can see is death.  Parker threw the water bottle, then he threw the mat he was using as a blanket, then he threw himself.  The bullet misses.

Parker knocks the gun out of Dalesia’s hand, and now his hands are reaching for Nick’s throat. Those huge veiny hands. Every guy who works with Parker has probably thought about what those hands would feel like, wrapped around his throat.  Nick would rather not find out.  He jumps through a closed window to the ground below.  And that’s Part Two.

McWhitney and Loscalzo come up, one after the other, to hear the sad story.  Parker had Nick, but he was too stiff after sleeping on that floor, let him go.  He’s cut from the glass, no gun, no car, no money, cops everywhere.  If they don’t find him, the law will, and any faint hope he wouldn’t spill his guts about McWhitney and Parker is gone now.  So they have to spill his guts for him, or start prepping for some serious lifestyle changes.

While Sandra gets the van ready to receive its cargo, Parker and Nels do a quick search, come up empty.  No more time, have to get the money out.  Boxes of bills, covered with a layer of hymnals.  Also a few boxes that are just hymnals, in case they get stopped.  Have to leave some cash behind.  C’est la guerre.

Parker says he needs to go back into the church.  He doesn’t say why.  He saw mud on the floor that wasn’t there before.  Dalesia’s hiding in the basement.  Parker has the gun now, but Nick has one last card to play–the cops are outside.  No silencer on that gun.  Stalemate, right?

Wrong.  He forgot about the hands.  This time they find the neck.  Bye, Nick.

This is a significant moment in the series, that isn’t treated as such.  Parker has killed a lot of his colleagues in the past twenty-three books.  He’s never been forced to kill one who didn’t cross him on a job, cheat him of his share, or try to kill him.  Nick did just shoot at him, but that’s as clear-cut a case of self-defense as ever there was.  And, you know, he could have said they’d smuggle him out in the van–but the cops have his photograph.  He’s got a target on his chest the rest of his life.  Which isn’t saying much anymore.

Nick Dalesia was a solid pro, a likable guy.  Not a nice guy.  Not in that profession.  But is he–pardon, was he–any worse than Handy McKay, Alan Grofield, Dan Wycza, Salsa, Mike Carlow, Stan Devers, or Ed Mackey?  Nope.  A bit more mellow, I’d say.  And would Parker have hesitated to kill any of those old amigos, if they were standing where Nick was just now?  Nope.  Is Parker getting soft in this final books?  Hell nope.  He is maybe crossing a line here.  Nick crossed it first, when he killed that marshal.  Romanticism only gets you so far in the 21st century.  Sorry, Nick.

Parker hides the body, goes back outside.  Sandra is playing the friendly choir director (there are going to be some things she does better than Parker, having lived in the straight world so long, and this is one of them). Parker’s name is now Desmond.  “I’m in recovery,” he lies.  For a guy who has never lived in the straight world, he’s not bad, you know?

The cops are, of course, Louise and Danny, and Louise is so happy and nostalgic about the place.  She totally believes Sandra belongs to some church choir that rehabilitates people who had a tough break. She’s so pleased when Sandra gives her a hymn book as a keepsake.  And Parker is so pleased to learn the roadblocks have been lifted.

The ride back to Long Island is not as uneventful as hoped.  McWhitney gets stopped once along the way, so good thing they didn’t do what he wanted, and dump the hymnals to make room for the last few boxes of cash.  Parker learns what happened with Oscar Sidd from Sandra, and he knows Nelson was at least half-thinking about a cross.  Not enough to push that button in Parker’s head, but the button is still there, waiting.

Sandra drops him at a motel, where he and McWhitney will watch the cash, before getting the rest of the way back.  Parker tells her it’s safe for her girlfriend to come home.  They’re getting pretty cozy, those two.  For wolves who just met on a frozen lake.

Parker and Nels have a drink at the motel bar, and talk strategy.  They’ve got the money, and don’t feel like waiting a decade or so to spend it, so they need somebody with overseas connections, who can make it disappear, and give them a decent percentage.  Oscar Sidd has proven  himself less than trustworthy.  Parker knows somebody else–not trustworthy.  More solid, better connected.  And there’s a relationship there.  Not what you’d call a friendly one, but as Parker told Sandra in the car, he doesn’t have friends.

Let’s skip over the preliminaries in Chapter 7 (okay, just this much–“Who shall I say is calling?”  “Parker.” “Is that all?”  “He’ll know.”), and cut ahead to the meet.  Northern NJ, state park, picnic area, right in front of a park police headquarters.  Neutral turf.  Frank Meany.  Cosmopolitan Beverages. You know, the people who sent their Russian hitman to kill Parker, at Paul Brock’s behest, only things did not work out as planned.   At one point Parker had a gun to Meany’s head, and that definitely wasn’t part of Meany’s plan.  Now Meany’s wondering what plans this guy has.  He’s wondering even more at the size of the balls on this guy.  But he’s no slouch himself.

Meany said a word to the driver, then came on, as the driver got back behind the wheel and put the Daimler just beyond the red pickup.  A tall and bulky man with a round head of close-cropped hair, Meany was a thug with a good tailor, dressed today in pearl-gray topcoat over charcoal-gray slacks, dark blue jacket, pale blue shirt and pale blue tie.  Still, the real man shone through the wardrobe, with his thick-jawed small-eyed face, and the two heavy rings on each hand, meant not for show for for attack.

Meany approached Parker with a steady heavy treat, stopped on the other side of the picnic table, but did not sit down.  “So here we are,” he said.

“Sit,” Parker suggested.

Meany did so, saying, “You’re not gonna object to the driver?”

“He gets out of the car,” Parker said, “I’ll do something.”

“Deal.  Same thing for your friend in the pickup.”

“Same thing.  You didn’t bring a sandwich.”

“I ate lunch.”

Parker shook his head, irritated.  As he took his sandwich out of the bag and ripped the bag in half to make two paper plates, he said, “People who ride around in cars like that one there forget how to take care of themselves.  If I’m looking at you out of one of those windows over there, and you’re not here for lunch, what are you here for?”

“An innocent conversation,” Meany said, and shrugged.

“In New Jersey?”  Parker pushed a half sandwich on a half bag to Meany, then took a bite of the remaining half.

(It’s official.  Everybody makes jokes about Jersey.)

So while they each chew on half a Reuben, Parker lays out his business proposition.  He’s not saying he did that armored car robbery, but if he was, he’d want ten cents on the dollar. 200k.  Meaning they’ve got two million.  (I’m not sure that matches up with what we were told in Nobody Runs Forever, or with the fact that they had to leave some cash behind at the church, and there’s some more dubious accounting ahead, but it’s the last book, the author’s dead, what are you gonna do, demand an audit?)

They reach a tentative agreement (you might go so far as to call it tenuous, tense, tendentious, or even tenebrous.)  Meany will go talk to his boss.  Parker has no boss, and he doesn’t talk to himself.

Meanwhile, back in Massachusetts, which is the name of the last chapter in Part Three, Louise and Danny are passing St. Dympna’s again, and she just has to go in and check it out this time.  Oh no, the church group left some of the hymnals behind! Maybe they can give them to charity.  That would be some lucky charity. They’re still absorbing the full terrifying implications of their fuck-up, when Danny smells something funny.  Or someone.

Reversa has been working on a different case, relating to a wealthy Chinese couple keeping undocumented Chinese immigrants as defacto slaves.  They bring her in to hear the sad news.  All that good professional work she put in.  Undone by some unprofessional work done further down the chain of command.  The troopers never even took down the name of that guy who showed them his license–Mac-something?

She sighs to herself.  She really thought they’d get him, and now she’s got to tell Modale that their quarry has slipped through the net yet again.  It’s been nine days.  John B. Allen?  Might as well call him Long John.  Because he’s long gone.

She’s a good hunter, but she didn’t quite understand what she was chasing.  She refers to him as a cat at one point.  Right track.  Wrong family.

That’s all we see of Gwen Reversa, or Massachusetts.  The loose ends from Nobody Runs Forever have all been tied up neatly.  Parker has come to an arrangement that should deal with the one remaining loose end, that of the serial numbers on the stolen bills.  The book could end right here, at page 192.  But the thing about loose ends is, they proliferate.  In literature, and life.

Not at 5,000 words yet.  I could wrap things up now, without going on longer than I have in past.  But what follows, in Part Four, is a story all to itself, and merits special treatment.  With regard to what’s come before, it’s more of a coda than a conclusion–long enough for a novella, which I’m half-inclined to refer to it as.  And it seems to me that Stark was laying the groundwork for more Parker stories.  That we’ll never read.

Because he’s long gone.

19 Comments

Filed under Donald Westlake novels, Parker Novels, Richard Stark

Review: Dirty Money

R-7943303-1452134190-1105

Through the chill of winter
Running across a frozen lake
Hunters are out on his trail
All odds are against him
With a family to provide for
The one thing he must keep alive
Will the wolf survive?

Louie Perez and David Hidalgo

When the silver Toyota Avalon bumped down the dirt road out of the woods and across the railroad tracks, Parker put the Infiniti into low and stepped out onto the gravel.  The Infiniti jerked forward toward the river as the Toyota slewed around behind it to a stop.  Parker picked up the full duffel bag from where he’d tossed it on the ground, and behind him, the Infiniti rolled down the slope into the river, all its windows open; it slid into the gray dawn water like a bear into a trout stream.

Parker carried the duffel in his arms and Claire got out of the Toyota to open its rear door and say, “Do you want to drive?”

“No.  I’ve been driving.” He heaved the duffel onto the backseat, then got around to take the passenger side in front.

Before getting behind the wheel, she stood looking toward the river, a tall slender ash-blonde in black slacks and a bulky dark red sweater against the October chill.  “It’s gone,” she said.

“Good.”

There.  I’ve done it.  Typed out the final opening from the final Parker novel.  I don’t usually start a review that way.  Seemed to fit here.  But where does this book fit into what is now and will ever remain, a twenty-four book epic?  One novel for each hour in the day.  Not planned.  Destined, maybe.

Not half as good as the one leading into it.  To be blunt, I’d be hard-pressed to rank it in the top twenty.  Flashfire is still the worst.  The best? I could say The Hunter, The Man With the Getaway Face, The Score, The Jugger, The Seventh, The Rare Coin Score, The Green Eagle Score, The Sour Lemon ScoreDeadly Edge, Slayground, Butcher’s Moon, Breakout, or yeah, Ask The Parrot–and mean it every time.  This dark horse is out of the running, in either race.  Neither best nor worst–it’s the last.  For that alone, attention must be paid.

Much of what you find in it is more than good.  It contains many crisp clean clarified currents of prose, like what you just read up top.  Stark can still write like no one else.  But he seems a little confused here, as to what he’s writing about, and to what end.  Maybe because he knows, on a molecular level–this is the end. Nobody runs forever.  Whatever may become of Parker, Mr. Westlake’s string has almost run out, and Stark can’t go on without Westlake.  Anymore than Westlake could have gone on this long without Stark. Package deal.

The book is saying hello and goodbye at the same time; finishing arcs begun in Nobody Runs Forever, and in books before that–and starting new arcs, which we’ll never see the end of, can only speculate about.  It’s designed to be a pivot for the series, but it’s a pivot to nowhere, which I suppose is a fair description of death.

About the title.   I never liked it.  Always wondered what the point of it was.  How is this money any dirtier than what came before?  Because the bills from the bank are new, the law has the serial numbers, and Parker has to find a way to negotiate this marked moolah.  So the problem isn’t that it’s dirty, but that it’s too damn clean.  I guess you could say the money he’s going to get in place of it is dirty.  Or that all money is, by definition.  (Would Filthy Lucre be a better title?  Not for this franchise.)

The overseas market liked the title well enough, since every foreign language edition I’ve found translates it literally.  What you can say for certain is that for the second time in this Triptych, Westlake is consciously recycling the title of a foreign-made crime film.  Not the original title.  The American release title.  Huh.

I’m a longtime admirer of Jean Pierre Melville, Prince of the Nouvelle Vague.  (Wait for Godard all you like.)  His final film, Un Flic (aka Dirty Money) is not one of my favorites, in part because it’s so hard to see a decent print.  First time we rented a (bad) video of it, it was for Deneuve, and she was barely in it.

The dialogue can get a bit too vague, and it’s not tres nouvelle.  The scene with the toy helicopter and the model train is cheesy. He didn’t have the budget to pull the visual off, and maybe he didn’t care–these days, they’d be using CGI, and I’d be yapping about that.  I should probably give it another chance–great cast, some beautiful moments, and with Melville, it’s easy to miss the point.  He’s always got one.  But he hides it under a smoke screen of crime fiction.  Like Stark.  And he’s all about identity.  Like Westlake.

Catherine Deneuve doesn’t have a big role in Un Flic, but she’s still a key player in it–same thing could be said of Claire–who for the first and only time in this series is said to be a blonde–no more born that way than Deneuve.  Claire’s a redhead in Nobody Runs Forever.  No hint of her tint in any other book.  I’m going to go on thinking of her as brunette, and go on wondering why Westlake chose to bring up her hair color twice in the Triptych, after four decades of never mentioning it.

You can’t tell me he didn’t know the Melville film, a noir-inflected bank job yarn that feels more Starkian than anything Hollywood ever cranked out, allowing for the usual dose of existential fatalism that won’t let us have our cake and eat it too.  As with The High Commissioner/Nobody Runs Forever, there’s no direct influence.  But I don’t think this is a coincidence.  Knowing what something isn’t doesn’t prove you know what it is, so that’s enough about the title.

So how about the dedication?  Most Parker novels have none–the two previous books in the Triptych didn’t.  But here, before the title page, we get “This is for Dr. Quirke, and his creator–two lovely gents.”  I’m disappointed at how easy this case was to crack.  Dr. Quirke is the creation of John Banville, writing under the pseudonym Benjamin Black.  A mystery solving pathologist, hopefully less annoying than Quincy M.E. (I’ll find out at some point).  He and Westlake sort of interviewed each other for Newsweek.  Good bit of craic there.

One more thing before we get down to it. After a long rewarding stint at The Mysterious Press, the last two Westlake novels–the final Parker, the final Dortmunder–were put out by Grand Central Publishing.  A division of Hachette.

So let me get this straight.   Westlake’s two most famous characters departed this world via the auspices of a publishing imprint named after a world famous point of departure, under the umbrella of a huge media corporation, the name of which looks like a synonym for ax?  And people bitch about the contrivances in fiction.  The world is not simple enough to understand.  This book might be, so let’s talk about that.

Avalon meets Infiniti by a river (not subtle, still pretty).  Infiniti having been ditched, Parker and Claire head back to their personal Avalon by Colliver Pond, so he can take a short siesta, after which he needs her to drive him to Nelson McWhitney’s bar on Long Island, to talk about Nick Dalesia.  Who is now a major problem, because as Claire tells Parker, he escaped while being transferred to Federal custody–killing a marshal as he went.  The one thing that gets cops most focused on you–when you kill one of them.

Minor continuity error here–not the last in this book.  Parker says they grabbed Dalesia yesterday.  Yesterday he was pulling a heist with Tom Lindahl.  The day before yesterday, he met Tom Lindahl, and was going to pass on the heist Tom proposed, until he saw the news about Dalesia’s capture on TV.  Parker’s tired, sure.  He can make mistakes.  So can crime fiction authors in their 70’s.  (Or crime fiction bloggers at any age, but I’m right about this.)

We get one last physical description, elusive as always--“a big ropy man who looked squeezed into the Toyota.”  (Avalons are full-sized sedans, and he’s in the front passenger seat, so very big and ropy.)

Claire is taken aback when Parker offhandedly reveals that he pulled a second heist while on the run from the first one.  A long heavy duffel, crammed with untraceable cash.  Unlike the very traceable cash still hidden at the church in Massachusetts.  If they’re going to get that, find some way to fence it, they need to move, and soon.

Parker doesn’t trust the makeshift ID Lindahl made for him, useful as it was over the past two days.  His better-quality fake ID that he used in Massachusetts is now known to the law, worse than useless.  He’s got to get new papers, a new identity.  He’s coming to grips with the fact that things have changed, and it’s harder to slip through the cracks than it used to be.

For him to go on operating in this brave new digital world, he’s going to need 100% top-drawer ID work done.  Which is going to cost him.  So we’re back where we started, but with a switch.  In the first book, he made his own driver’s license at the DMV, forging the official stamp with a ballpoint pen, and he could open a bank account with it.  In the second book, it was plastic surgery.  Now, in the final book, it’s just a better grade of plastic.  That will hold up to all but the most intense scrutiny.

As they drive out to Long Island, late in the day, he fills her in on what’s happened since he last saw her, which involves obliquely mentioning that there’s been a fair bit of premature mortality going on, which has always been the part of Parker’s life she didn’t want to know about.  She’s been loosening up on this rule more and more, but he’s still surprised when she says she wants to come into the bar–same bar where Roy Keenan was murdered, by the bar’s proprietor.  Not that he told her that, but she’s got more than an inkling.

Sandra Loscalzo is there, still trying to get her reward money for Harbin.  McWhitney gave her the location of the body, she’s waiting to hear if it was found.  If it isn’t, she figures she can turn Parker and McWhitney in for a reward.  She’s real upfront about that.  I’d say she takes no prisoners, except that’s exactly what she does.  Dead or alive.

They’re all sizing each other up, distrust running in more than one direction, but Sandra’s the odd woman out, since she’s the only one who talks to the law.  Claire makes it clear that if the cops come to her door, she knows how to lie, and men love hearing her lie.  Sandra’s hand is in her pocket while she’s talking.  She knows Parker isn’t going to let her walk out of there if she’s going to the law. She respects that.  But she’s getting her money.  One way or the other.  He respects that.  Impasse.

Sandra has an idea about the bank money–why doesn’t she go get it?  For a share, of course.  Parker points out that even though there’s no warrant out on her, the cops could be sitting on the cash, waiting to see who comes for it–and if they get her, they’ll get everything she knows. The impasse is put on hold when she gets a callback–they found Harbin.  Everybody leaves, and Nels locks up.

Next day, Parker stashes the cash from the track, and comes back to see FBI agents are paying Claire a little social call.  They are following up on a lead–Nick Dalesia called the house, several times.  She convinces them she doesn’t know the man, he was never there, and they leave. No mention of her brother, Mr. John B. Allen, now wanted for bank robbery.  No mention of a Lexus registered to her, that he was driving, and she reported stolen.

So you can justify this by different law-enforcement bureaucracies not playing well together–still a thing, even today–or say that these hunters are being patient.  Or you can say that the justifications are getting too hard to justify.  Too much work to make it work.

In fairness, the area around the house is deserted–the summer people are gone–nobody else there the G-Men can talk to, about any gentlemen callers the charming Ms. Willis might have.  But you have to figure that they’re going to find out she was connected, under a different last name, to the armed robbery of a coin collector’s convention in Indianapolis.  (How many years ago?  A lady never tells.)

It’s getting to the point where the house in New Jersey is getting impossible to justify.  Parker accepted, long ago, that the house was essential to Claire, and she was essential to him, so they’ve done a lot of workarounds.  This book seems to be the beginning of where it becomes impossible to make it work anymore.  Something’s got to give.  (Turned out to be Westlake’s ticker.)

But whether or not the Bureau suspects Claire of harboring a hardened criminal (one way of putting it), something has to be done about that money.  Something has to be done about Dalesia.  Both are to be found near a small town in northwestern Massachusetts.  Parker needs to be there.  He needs Claire to make him look like a tourist–a leaf peeper, as they say. No fleabag motel this time. Best look extra-legit.  They’ll check into a bed and breakfast.

“You folks here for the robbery?”

The place was called Bosky Rounds, and the pictures on the website had made it look like somewhere Hansel and Gretel might have stopped off.  Deep eaves, creamy stucco walls, broad dark green wooden shutters flanking the old-fashioned multipaned windows, and a sun god knocker on the front door. The Bosky Rounds gimmick, though they wouldn’t have used the word, was that they offered maps of nearby hiking trails through the forest, for those leaf peepers who would like to be surrounded by their subject.  It was the most rustic and innocent accommodation Claire could find, and Parker had agreed it was perfect for their purposes.

Mrs. Bartlett, the matronly owner of this twee establishment, bears a marked resemblance to Mrs. Krutchfield, proprietress of The Sewing Kit B&B in upstate New York, who appeared in Westlake’s Smoke.

This being Stark, not Westlake, the comic elements are more muted, but still present.  She’s all agog about the bank robbery (she doesn’t come out and say it will give a little boost to business, but she’s thinking it).  Keeps talking about how they used bazookas, and Parker refrains from saying they were Carl-Gustafs.  Same basic kind of tool, what does he care?

The idea of Claire being there is not only that she’s got real ID she can get through roadblocks with, but that she’s such a stunner, the cops will be looking at her, not Parker, so they won’t be comparing him to that sketch on the wanted posters.  This theory is put to the test when they meet Terry Mulcany, a freelance journalist who does ‘true crime’ books.

He’s there interviewing anybody he can find who knows anything about the bank job.  He’s so busy chatting up Claire, he doesn’t notice Parker, who is standing right there.  While Parker is thinking about what he’s going to do to this guy if he ever does notice something besides Claire (but that, again, is one of the great advantages of having Claire around).

Under the pretext of driving to a local seafood restaurant, they pass the church twice–no sign of surveillance.  They get back, and Sandra Loscalzo is now ensconced at Bosko Rounds.  Different kind of surveillance.  She suggests they go have a few drinks together.

Sandra’s problem was not solved by finding Harbin’s remains, because there were so many law enforcement agencies after him, offering money for him (dead or alive), that they now need to work out whose budget line Sandra’s money comes out of.  This is the kind of shop talk Parker likes, because it means there’s still cracks in the system for him to slip through.  This may be The Information Age he’s living in now, but more information means more confusion.

So she again points out that she could expose Parker, and he again points out that he could kill her and her girlfriend in Cape Cod, who Sandra says has gone on a little holiday (which when you think about it, is exactly what Claire does when Parker is involved in something extra-heavy.)

Claire dusts off her diplomatic skills, and the way it works out is Sandra just wants a taste of the bank money–not all of Nick’s share–just half of it.  She could be useful.  Parker can’t deny that.  But he’s nowhere close to trusting her.  And he knows she’s going to try and follow them when they leave the bar.  Which makes it not too difficult to shake her in the dark–at which point he goes to check out the church, while Claire drives around in circles, ready to pick him up.

The money’s still there, hidden under hymnals.  Nobody sitting on it.  No cops, no Dalesia. Good.  And when he gets back to Bosky Rounds, Sandra is there on the porch.  She knows he’s been checking on their money.  And he acknowledges, verbally, that part of it is hers.  Her offer has been accepted.

In this same chapter, while they’re driving to the church, Parker makes it clear that if the Feds get any more interested in her, they’re both going to have to leave Colliver Pond for good.  Claire says that if she has to abandon her house, change her name, go back to living like a gypsy all year, she’ll do it.  She won’t like it.  Parker will go further out on a limb for her than anyone (in that he will go out on a limb for her at all).  So he’s still holding out hope that the exodus can be averted.  Whether he believes that is another matter.  (Speaking as a reader, I don’t.  The house is already half-burned.  At least.)

Now it’s time for the other good-looking nosy blonde in this Triptych to reemerge.  Detective Gwen Reversa, of the MA state police.  She comes into Bosky Rounds at breakfast time, making her rounds, and Parker has Claire block his face with her newspaper.  Sandra notices all this from her vantage point, figures out what it means.

As she figures out what Parker means, when he asks Mrs. Bartlett for directions to a scenic overview of the area, while she is sitting right there listening.  He wants a meet.  Up at the lookout, the three of them discuss the options.  Parker has to leave the B&B.  Claire has to stay, keep up a front.  And Sandra will drive Parker back to Long Island, so they can bring McWhitney into the picture.

Sandra gets them there by mid-afternoon. McWhitney, not the most chivalrous guy you’ll ever meet, will not say he’s pleased to see her, though a pleasing sight she remains. Thought they’d concluded their business when she got her body (and he knows he’s never getting hers). Nor is he pleased she’s getting a split of the take.

But as they fill him in, he realizes there’s no choice, other than letting it all go.  And while she’s in a different business than them, she’s got a talent for planning, logistics, finding cracks to slip through  Again, reminding me of someone.  Point is–

Parker said, “You’ve figured out a way to get our money out.”

“I think so.” To McWhitney she said, “You pretty well know the business operations around this neighborhood.”

“Pretty well.”

“Do you know a used-car lot, maybe kind of grungy, no cream puffs?”

McWhitney grinned for the first time since he’d laid eyes on Sandra.  “I know a dozen of them,” he said.  “Whadayou need?”

“A truck.  A small beat-up old truck, delivery van, something like that.  Black would be best, just so it isn’t too shiny.”

“A truck.” McWhitney sounded disgusted.  “To move the stash.”

“That’s right.”

“What makes this truck so wonderful?  It’s invisible?

“Pretty much so,” she said.  “Whatever color it is, and I really would like it black, we use the same color to paint out whatever name might already be on it.  Then, on both doors, in white, we paint Holy Redeemer Choir.”

“Holy shit,” McWhitney said.

“We’re the redeemers,” Sandra told him.  “It’s okay if the name on the doors is a bit amateurish, but we should try to do our best with it.”

McWhitney slowly nodded.  “The choir’s coming to get their hymnals.”

“And we’ll get some, too,” Sandra said, “in case anybody wants to look in back.”

“Jesus, you always gotta insult me,” McWhitney said.  “Here I was thinking you weren’t so bad.”

“I was used to dealing with Roy,” she said, and shrugged.

McWhitney says she should thank him for breaking up the partnership, i.e., knocking Roy’s brains out with a baseball bat.  She doesn’t bat an eye.  Who is this broad?

We get a serious clue, as she and Parker stop to eat on their way back.  He’s noticing that she’s not quite like the people he usually deals with.  She’s more like–well–him.  But unlike him, she’s living in the straight world, catching crooks, working with the law.  And now she’s getting throwing in with bank robbers.  He needs to know she knows what she’s doing here.  Who she is.  What she is.

While they waited for their food, Parker said, “This whole thing is the wrong side of the street for you.”

Sandra grimaced.  “I don’t think of it like that,” she said.  “What I think, there’s no sides to the street because there is no street.”

“What is there?”

She studied him, trying to decide how much to tell him, moving her fork back and forth on the table with her left hand. Then she shrugged, and left the fork alone, and said, “I figured it out when I was a little girl, what my idea of the world is.”

“What’s that?”

“A frozen lake,” she said.  “Bigger than you can see the end of.  Every day, I get up, I gotta move a little more along the lake.  I gotta be very careful and very wary, because I don’t know where the ice is too thin.  I gotta listen and watch.”

“I’ve seen you do it.”

She grinned and nodded, as though more pleased with him than herself.  “Yeah, you have.”

They were both silent a minute, and then their food came.  The waitress went away and Sandra picked up her fork, but then she paused to say, “You go see a war movie, the guy gets hurt, he yells ‘Medic!’, they come to take him away, fix him up.  Out here, you get hurt, you yell ‘Medic!’, you know what happens?”

“Yeah, I do.”

“There’s no sides,” she said.  “No street.  We just do what we’ve got to do to get across the lake.”

I can’t imagine a more perfect metaphor for how Parker lives his life.  If he gave a damn about metaphors, neither could he.  (And as Greg just reminded me, he trotted out that exact metaphor in The Green Eagle Score,  though he was a lot less wordy about it.  Maybe Sandra had a year or two of college on her lake.)

And what you have to ask–what he’s asking himself, as he listens to her–is she like him?  Is it possible he’s not alone in this insane world after all?  She figured all this out when she was a child.  As he must have done.  When you’re that different, you figure it out early.  And you start figuring out how to make that work for you.  Because you don’t have any choice.

Like him, she lives from score to score.  Like him, she returns to a woman and a house after each score.  Like him, she hides what she really is, blends into the herd, because she can never have a pack.

But she went another way with it.  Makes sense.  Maybe he could have gone that way, in a different life, a different time.  Right now, she’s starting to go his way, as their paths across the lake converge.

They get back to Bosky Rounds, and Claire quietly says they have to leave. Reversa was here again.  No doubt what side of the street she’s on (or that she believes there is a street).  She gave Mrs. Barlett wanted posters to put up there. If people can compare the police sketch with Parker, sitting there having breakfast, somebody will make the connection.

Parker tells Claire she can’t check out yet.  Leave tomorrow, so it doesn’t seem like she’s running.  He’s going to hide out at the church, with the money.  Sandra drives him there.  For all their mutual understanding, there’s still plenty of distrust (which is what you expect from two carnivores who pair up to take down something too big for a lone wolf).

She gives him a mover’s pad, to serve as a blanket.  It’s going to be cold in that church.  She’s got some bottled water as well.  He’s going to be hungry, but he’s used to that.  He checks everything out after she drops him off.  Nothing changed.  Just have to wait for McWhitney to come with the truck.

It was a long empty day.  For part of it he walked, indoors or out, and other parts he sat against a wall in the empty house or curled into the moving pad again and slept.  He woke from one of those with the long diagonals of late afternoon light coming in the window and Nick Dalesia seated cross-legged on the floor against the opposite wall.  The revolver in his right hand, not exactly pointing anywhere, would belong to the dead marshal.

Parker sat up.  “So there you are,” he said.

Somehow, even when you’ve got a gun on Parker and he’s barehanded, it always feels like you’re the one in danger.  Dalesia’s got the drop on him, and he should drop him.  But he needs a car.  Does Parker have one parked nearby?  (Damn, again seeing why Westlake sometimes regretted choosing that name.)

They’re five feet apart.  Parker has to play this just right.  Stay calm, wait for the opening.  Nick keeps asking questions, trying to figure out what Parker is doing here.  Then he knows–Parker is waiting–for back-up–and to kill him.  He hesitates.  Just for a moment.  They’re friends, aren’t they?  Oh Nick.  You know better.  The job is over.  You killed a cop.  You want all the money now.  The rules have changed.  For all we know, this is what happened to Handy McKay.

Parker tosses the water bottle towards Nick, and just for a moment it catches his eye.  A moment is all Parker needs.  He throws the makeshift blanket, and makes his move.  A bullet pierces the mat.  End of Part One.  I’ll do Parts Two and Three next time.  Then Part Four.  And then we’re done with Stark.

I don’t know if the frozen lake thing is a coincidence.  Los Lobos came out with that song back in 1984.  It was pretty popular.  Westlake could have heard it. And very different minds sometimes run along parallel lines.  If you believe in lines.  Do you believe the wolf will survive?

I need to.

 

(Part of Friday’s Forgotten Books)

48 Comments

Filed under Donald Westlake novels, Parker Novels, Richard Stark

Review: Ask the Parrot, Part 3

vernon_downs_0

Jane loved to read.  Reading invariably took her out of the world she lived in, out of this glassed-in porch with its changing views of the seasons, and off to some other world with other views, other people, other seasons.  Invariably; but not today.

Jane tended to buy best sellers, but only after they came out in paperback, so the excited buzz that had greeted the book’s initial appearance had cooled and she could see the story for itself, with its insights and its failings.  She was a forgiving reader, even when she was offered sequences that didn’t entirely make sense; after all, now and again the sequence of events of actual life didn’t make sense either, did it?

Like that man, Smith, staying with Tom Lindahl.  What could possibly have brought those two together?  And how had Tom, a man she’d known for probably thirty years, suddenly come up with an “old friend” nobody’d ever heard of before?

No; that was the real world.  What she was trying to concentrate on was the world inside this book, and finally, after distracting herself several times, she did succeed, and settled in with these characters and their story.  Now she concentrated on the problems of these other relationships and intertwining histories and didn’t look up until the room had grown so dark she simply couldn’t read any more.

“You’ve got something else going on.”

Ed gave him an exasperated look.  “We work from different rule books, Tom.  You already know that.”

“Yes.”

Why did I think I could control him? Tom thought, remembering the sight of the man coming up that hill.  Because he was on the run?  That didn’t make him somebody that could be controlled, that made him somebody that could never be controlled.

Before I built a wall I’d ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was like to give offense.
Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
That wants it down. I could say ‘Elves’ to him,
But it’s not elves exactly, and I’d rather
He said it for himself. I see him there
Bringing a stone grasped firmly by the top
In each hand, like an old-stone savage armed.
He moves in darkness as it seems to me,
Not of woods only and the shade of trees.
He will not go behind his father’s saying,
And he likes having thought of it so well
He says again, ‘Good fences make good neighbors.’

Robert Frost

My 200th post here.  I can’t think of a better place for it.  This is the final Westlake masterpiece (so by definition, the final Stark masterpiece).  He had two more decent books left in him after this; they did not rise to this level.

Westlake gets slotted as a comic author, and he earned that backhanded compliment, but what I’ve found, again and again, is that his strongest work–even when comedic in tone–is often very dark, composed at trying moments in his life, as was this book, completed after he’d been afflicted with retinal tears and cataracts, leading to multiple surgeries on his eyes.  For the better part of a year (the worst, really), he could neither read nor write.

Hard for anyone to endure–terrifying for a writer. Too late to learn Braille.  Too private and involved in his work methods to write by dictation, as John Milton did.  “Does God exact day labour, light denied?”  He did not fondly ask.  Providence and modern medicine (and good insurance) gave him back his eyes, impaired but usable, and he put them to good use.  Make hay while the sun shines.

Ask The Parrot, the first book he finished after his recovery, benefits, ironically enough, from its crystal clear focus–relatively few characters, the action taking place over perhaps forty-eight hours, perhaps less.  Quite a lot of action, and yet it never feels rushed.  There is an autumnal chill over the proceedings, even when the characters themselves are in the grip of frenzy, vendetta.  Which Parker, who has felt such emotions in the past, never submits to here, never loses control.

Which is why we need Part Three, to bring us into the heads of all those who do. It skips around quite a bit in time and space.  And state of mind.

We start with Nelson McWhitney, the only member of the string from Nobody Runs Forever who has gotten through the dragnet with little trouble–because he’s driving his own car, with his own ID, we’re told.  He’s had troubles with the law before, so you might think his priors would show up when they checked on him, but how much of a check do they run on you when they stop and question you, if they stop and question you?  I think most of us don’t really know, because most police roadblocks are directed at drunk drivers, Latin-American immigrants, and, of course, black people.  Nelson is none of the above.  So he can get back to his bar on Long Island, and wait to see whether Nick Dalesia, whose capture he hears about on the car radio, knows enough about him to be a problem.

Then we’re back with Brian Hopwood and Suzanne Gilbert, the two civilians Parker has been forced to hold at gunpoint at Hopwood’s service station.  Parker wants to know more about Suzanne, who stopped to talk to him last night, when he was out strolling (prowling, really).  She wants to know why he took her grandfather’s gun.  The one he’s pointing at her now.

He looked at her, and though his face didn’t change into anything you could call a smile, Brian still had the feeling the question  had given him some kind of amusement.  “Just in case Brian here,” he told her, “would draw down on me.  You didn’t stop to see your grandfather last night.”

Last night?  Brian looked from the hardcase to Suzanne, who didn’t even look worried, much less scared, and he thought, What about last night?  Now there was some other story here, and he wasn’t in on it.

She said, “No, I just drive by, on my way home.  Sometimes he can’t sleep, and, if that happens, he’ll sit out on his porch with the light on and I stop and we talk awhile.  He knows I’ll be there and it makes it easier for him, so these days he’s sleeping more than he used to.  Last night when I went by he was asleep in front of the television set, so that was fine, so I just went on home.  I suppose that’s when you broke in and stole his gun.”

For Christ’s sake, Suzanne, Brian thought, leave it alone.  But the hardcase didn’t seem to mind.  He just shrugged and said, “He didn’t seem to use it much.”  Then he switched those cold eyes to Brian, considered him a minute as though he might decide after all he was the kind of pest you might as well shoot, and said, “When did you decide?”

“To be a hero?”  Brian, beyond embarrassment, shrugged and looked away.  “When I did it.”

The way it was, once he realized Parker was one of the bank robbers, he made this little bargain with himself–if Parker drove away after pumping gas into Tom Lindahl’s car (that he assumes Parker stole), he’d call the state troopers.  If Parker came back in, he’d make a citizen’s arrest.  In truth, it worked out better for Parker that he didn’t call the cops.  Brian’s starting to realize that it worked out better for him that Suzanne came in when she did.  He can’t look at this guy now, really look at him, and believe he’d have lived to brag about how he captured the bank robber single-handed.

Parker doesn’t want to leave any dead bodies behind him, it it can be avoided. Can he fix it so that these two can’t call the law before he gets out of this podunk town?  Between the three of them, they come up with a story–Brian has to work on a local doctor’s car, it’s an emergency.  He’s going to call his wife and tell her that.  Tell not not to hold up dinner for him.  She tells him he’s going to have to make do with reheated chicken curry.  He tells himself nothing will ever taste so good in his entire life.

Then Parker has Suzanne tie Brian’s hands behind his back with his own shoelaces.  Suzanne doesn’t want to be tied up–she still isn’t processing who and what she’s dealing with here.  But she finally accedes–shoelaces for her hands, jumper cables for her feet, stuck on the floor.  And then Parker rigs Brian’s office chair with screwdrivers and electrical tape, so it can’t roll.

Parker takes the keys for a customer’s black Infiniti (there was a white one in the last book; Westlake must have liked those cars, or at least the  name), and drives off.  Leaving Suzanne to ask who he thinks he is, treating them that way?  Brian says that a man in that situation will do pretty much what he likes.  Suzanne, beside herself with anger, asks what, is he famous or something?  Brian groans inwardly, thinking of the hours they’re going to spend in each other’s company.  It would be a great mistake to think Richard Stark did not have a comedic side to him, just as Westlake had a somber side–it’s a matter of emphasis.

(I wonder to myself, at moments like this, whether Parker could kill someone as patently innocent as Suzanne Gilbert. He’s caused the death of exactly one presumed innocent since we’ve met him–the first time we met him–by binding and gagging her. Turned out she had asthma, and suffocated while he was elsewhere.  He felt no guilt over it, but it bothered him, in a way he couldn’t really articulate, even to himself.

It’s a stupid question to ask, even if one believes, as I do, that Parker is a beast in human form.  A romantic notion, that true innocence is a sure defense against a carnivore, with four legs or two.  Yet, it must be said, others have had this notion in the past.  Best not take it too literally.  Remember Timothy Treadwell, and even more aptly, Amie Hugueonard.  Though grizzlies are really omnivores, like us.)

We pick back up with Cal and Cory, who are still looking for some way to score off ‘Ed’ and Tom.  Cal is brooding over the way Parker bitch-slapped him, not wanting to admit how scared he is, which means he’s got to do something to prove he isn’t.  Cory’s musing on how they need to be able to tail their quarry undetected.  He’ll borrow their sister’s car, telling her he’s got an interview for a nice respectable office job, suitable for someone of his intelligence.

She’s got no time for Cal the perennial screw-up (it’s been made clear that the only reason Cal is short an eye is Cal) but she still holds out hope for Cory.  She’ll buy his explanation that it’ll look better for him to show up for the appointment he doesn’t really have in her Jetta than in the pickup he and Cal share.

He drops Cal off at a diner, so sis won’t suspect anything’s amiss.  Cory knows his brother will want to over-indulge himself with food and drink, which will make him slow and stupid later–tells him just to have coffee. Cal promises, then goes into the diner and orders whatever the hell he wants, including beer.

Chapter 4.  We’re now with Fred, and his wife Jane, who has just brought back his rifle from Tom’s house.  This chapter is from Jane’s POV.  He’s watching football.  She can see it’s not helping.  She knows he’s wounded inside, doesn’t know what to do about it, has been emotionally overwhelmed for some time now.

She passes on what ‘Ed’ told her, that their son George would want Fred to be there once he gets out of Attica.  Fred is baffled by this, then agitated.  Why did ‘Ed’ say that?  What neither of them knows is that Parker was telling Jane to tell Fred that himself.  Give him a motivation to stay alive.  But honest to a fault, she reports it as an odd thing this friend of Tom Lindahl’s said.  Which Fred will now brood upon at length.

She settles in to read a book, her comfort, her anodyne, as it is for so many of us.  It works for her, far better than football did for Fred.  Frightening things happen in books, but you know they’re not real.  When she rouses herself from the book, she realizes Fred has gone.  He’s taken the car.  And the rifle.

It’s evening now. When the fake hunters get ready for bed, and the real ones get ready to prowl.  Parker tells Tom there’s going to be another change in the plan.  Tom should go ahead to the track without him.  He’ll catch up later.  Tom takes a quick look at his parrot, and thinks he’ll come up with a name for it when he gets back.

A short piece down the road, Jack Riley is worried about his granddaughter Suzanne.  She should have dropped by to check on him by now.  He’d better check on her.  He’s been unsettled ever since his pistol disappeared.  He always used to check on that, every night, just to remind himself it was there, if he ever needed it.

What he needs now is the only person left in the world who cares if he lives or dies.  Pooley is too small to have a sheriff, let alone its own police department.  He calls the local state police barracks, reports both disappearances–the missing gun and the missing granddaughter.  Not in that order of importance.  Suzanne hasn’t been missing that long, and old people lose things all the time, but the trooper asks him a lot of questions, decides this might be something worth checking on.  Jack’s told a car will be around in maybe half an hour.  He says he’ll turn the porch light on.

Now we’re in Fred’s head, for the first and only time in the book.  Not a pleasant place to be, and we’re just visiting.  He lives there.

It wasn’t football Fred saw on the blank television screen, it was the cell.  The all-purpose cell, sometimes the one he knew he was headed for, sometimes the one George was in right now–what has happened to our family?–but other times the cell/grave in which lay the man he killed, twitching still in death.

He had never seen George’s cell, of course, so this cell, constantly shifting, existed only in  his imagination, fed mostly by old black-and-white movies watched on nights he couldn’t sleep.  A small stone room it was, longer than wide, high-ceilinged, with hard iron bars making up one of the short walls and one small high-up window in the opposite wall, showing nothing but gray.  The cell smelled of damp and decay.  He lay curled on the floor there, or George did, or sometimes that poor man up at Wolf Peak, the last thick dark red blood pulsing out of his back.

It was getting dark outside the living room windows.  Imagination had never bothered Fred much before this, but now he was all imagination, screaming nerve ends of imagination, imagining the cell, imagining the shame, and now, as darkness was coming on, imagining the teeth.  Destroying the evidence.  It gets darker and darker, and all those rustling creatures gather around the body on the forest floor, gnawing at it, snarling at one another, gnawing and gnawing.

His body.  The way he sometimes became George, in that Gothic prison cell, now sometimes, too, he became the dead man on Wolf Peak, among all those jaws, all those teeth.

Day before yesterday, he killed a harmless old man for no reason.  A stranger who smelled of trouble told him not to report it, and he agreed, hating himself for his cowardice.  Now the stranger has told his wife to tell him, in effect, “Don’t shoot yourself.”

He wasn’t going to do that!  Well, of course he was thinking about doing precisely that, or rather, trying not to think about it.  But that doesn’t mean this shadowy bastard has the right to tell him not to think about it.  And the more he thinks about it, the more he thinks what this Ed Smith really meant was ‘go ahead and do it.’  Trying to plant the idea in him.  Trying to get him out of the way.

Fred tells himself that Ed’s sympathy for him was fake–he’s got that much right. But paranoia makes it impossible to put yourself in anyone else’s place, to see past your own fears and insecurities.  Parker couldn’t care less whether Fred Thiemann eats his gun or not.  He only cares about getting out of this podunk corner of New York with his share of the loot. Fred’s suicide would complicate that, so the message he sent through Jane was meant to head that scenario off, at least for a while.  It got garbled in transmission.

What passes for Fred’s reason now tells him is, if there were no Ed Smith, he wouldn’t be afraid anymore.  He wouldn’t worry about the cell, about the teeth.  He heads over to Tom Lindahl’s place.  But the only one at Tom Lindahl’s place now is a parrot who can’t talk. Or can he?

Chapter 8 of Part Three in this book has bothered me for a long time.  I happen to  know a lot about birds. I even know a thing or two about parrots.  And the one thing anybody should know about them, aside from the fact that they are smart and long-lived, is that they see color better than we do.  Why would they have such splendid plumage were that not the case?

So the opening to chapter 8 bugs me, and it always will.  Even though I’m probably taking it too literally (‘black and white’ probably refers to the lining of the cage).

I still think it’s damned well written, and haunting in its (for want of a better word) starkness.  Donald Westlake’s one and only attempt I know of at a deep dive into an animal mind is worthy of attention.  But I think this must be considered more of a portrait in solipsism than a true vision of what it’s like to be a bird in a cage.  We probably don’t want to know what that’s like (I avoid stores that sell parrots whenever possible).

But one thing we do know is that a smart social being like a parrot goes entirely mad when confined to a cage by itself for too long.  Normally, a pet parrot forms a very strong bond with the human or humans it’s living with, comes to perceive one special human as its mate.  I don’t know that Westlake did any research on parrots at all for this book.  It might have gotten in the way with what he wanted to say here, but again–irritating if you know something about parrots.

The parrot is described as being green–maybe a species of conure, perhaps a Monk Parakeet–not one of the larger, longer-lived, more expensive species known for their exceptional capacity to mimic human speech.  Not a bad metaphor for Tom Lindahl’s life, the last few years.  This is where Tom’s been headed, up until Parker showed up.  And maybe this is what Westlake himself feared his life would become, if he didn’t get his eyes fixed.  Or maybe he just wanted to imagine what it would be like to look through those eyes.  If the whole world is a cell, a cell is nothing to fear.

The parrot saw things in black and white.  He knew about this place of his, that it was very strong, and that he was very strong within it, and that whenever he thought he might be hungry, there was food in the tray.  He was clean and preferred to stand on his swinging bar rather than down at the bottom of the world was made new, almost shining white and black, crisp, noisy if touched, until he began to drop upon it again.

For movement, rather than down there, he preferred to move among the swinging wooden bar and the rigid vertical black metal bars of the cage.  Up and over, sometimes, for no reason at all, his strong talons gripping the bars even directly above his head, giving him, when he arched his neck back and started with one round black and white eye at the world, this world, a whole new perspective.

The parrot is aware of other creatures, outside its cage, occupying a still larger cage, and how these creatures sometimes depart the outer cage for some outer realm of which it knows nothing.

He had some curiosity about these Creatures, but not much.  He studied them when they were present, usually observing one eye at a time, waiting for them to do something to explain themselves.  So far, they had not.

The parrot becomes aware that another Creature, not the one who attends to his needs, has entered the outer cage, and is shouting at him.  Trying to communicate something.  He’s never felt the need to speak before, but when an alien talks to you, shouldn’t you try to say something back, make contact?  He begins by trying to repeat the Creature’s words back to him–“Air izzi?  Air izzi?  Air izzi?”  No mention of wanting any crackers.  Has anyone ever heard a real parrot say that?

It’s not just psittacines in cages who go mad, but only bipedal hominids, sane or otherwise, are  guaranteed the right to bear arms.  The parrot knows nothing of that, so he grabs hold of the metal tube stuck into his cage, cocks his head to look down the barrel, and…..Polly want a harp?  Already got the wings.

Next, we’re with State Troopers James Duckbundy (perhaps an even rarer name than Grofield, possible Westlake made it up), and Roger Ellis, driving over to Jack Riley’s house, when they hear a rifle shot.  There are still some gun laws enforced in these United States, and one of them is that you can’t discharge a firearm within five hundred feet of a house (probably not as tightly enforced as all that in some places, but this is New York State).

They see somebody getting into a black Taurus by a boarded-up house.  They see a rifle.  They identify themselves as police, command him to put the weapon on the ground.  They have no way of knowing this guy just shot a parrot for talking back to him.  But they know he’s read to shoot them for doing the same, and while eleven shots is probably excessive, you know how it is with semi-automatics and panic. (I would like to see ordinary patrolmen go back to revolvers, but I get why they probably won’t.)

Now we’re with Tom, heading for the track in his Ford SUV, thinking about what to name his parrot, wondering where the hell Parker is, vaguely aware of a Volkswagen Jetta behind him, seeing a black Infiniti rocket past him, dealing with the fact that if his accomplice has ditched him, he’s never going to have the nerve to take the money himself, even though the take would be twice as large, and the risk of capture about the same.

Chapter 11.  Suzanne and Brian are still tied up in the gas station.  She’s woken up by gunshots, which we know mark the end of Fred Thiemann’s life, but she doesn’t.  She’s quietly humiliated by her recent inability to grasp the fact that the man who tied them up was not being rude.  He was a bank robber, looking for a way not to kill them.

Bank robbers were being hunted all around the countryside, but when this had happened to Suzanne, did she think, bank robbers?  No, she thought, now, see what they’re doing to me, and it took Brian Hopwood of all people to tell her, not gently, that this time the story wasn’t about her, it was about him, about that man, the one who’d tied them up and gone away.

And on top of everything else, she really really needs to go to the bathroom.  Isn’t there some saying about how The Necessary is the Mother of Invention?  She’s the one tied the knots holding Brian fast–used to be a Girl Scout.  She figures what she can do, she can undo.  Brian is skeptical, but she’s insistent (because her bladder is too).  And as she starts to make progress, he perks up, begins to help, and they’re both free.  And she’s running for the rest room.  And he’s reminding her she’ll need the key.

A very light section for such a dark book.  Doesn’t advance the plot in any way, though it might have done if they’d gotten free a few hours ago.  No danger they’d die of starvation in there.  The worst possibility they faced was having to wet their drawers, a fate now averted by Suzanne’s knot-savvy.  What’s the point of this chapter?

Stark wanted to know. He wondered how it turned out. It’s that simple.  He’s got a lot of developing situations to monitor, but he kept an eye on these two, watching to see if they’d find a way to work together, get out of their shared predicament.  They did.  Well done.  His curiosity satisfied, he turns his gaze elsewhere, and these two groundlings are seen no more, save for a brief curtain call. Enough with the comic relief (and the very low-key sexual tension neither of them is ever going to do anything about).

Following Tom down the highway, in the sister’s Jetta, Cory and Cal are getting confused.  What’s he up to?  For that matter, what are they up to?  Their necks in trouble, but that’s nothing new for the Rosencrantz & Guildenstern of upstate NY.

They know Tom wouldn’t be covering for this wanted felon if there wasn’t something in it for him.  That something has to be money.  Cal would like some of that money for himself.  Cory too, though it seems more like he’s just doing it for his brother–and to see if he can do it.  If he can come up with a plan that will get them what they want.  If Westlake were writing this book, maybe he would.  He should have checked the title page.

Still, he’s got potential–he solves the mystery–the race track.  The one Tom used to work at.  That’s where they’re going.  That’s what this is about.  That’s where the money is.

Neither of them is really thinking about what they might have to do to get this money.  Well, Cal’s thinking about it a little–he brought a gun.  High Standard GI, in .45 caliber.  Small gun, big bullets. Bought it in a pawn shop, years ago. Just like Jack Riley, he’s been fascinated by it ever since, wondering what it would be like to use it on someone.  (Guns are a bit like snakes, you ever think about that? And we’re the birds.  Ask the parrot about that.  Well, too late now.)

Cory freaks.  A Westlake hero, in a Stark novel, he never counted on anything heavy.  And he suddenly notices that his brother seems drunk–that beer is kicking in all of a sudden.

Then Cal notices that Tom Lindahl is alone in that car.  They pull over at a closed gas station.  Cal is beside himself with anger and fear.  Where’s Ed?

Right behind you, doofus.  Has been for a while.  In the black Infiniti (get the implicit pun?)  Which now pulls in front of them, blocking the road.  Parker gets out.  His hands are empty.  Cal remembers those hands.  He yanks out his .45 auto.  Parker takes out his .22 revolver.  Guess who wins?

Cal drops.  Cory runs for it in the Jetta.  In the rearview mirror, he can see Parker, striding, hands at his side, the gun in one of them.  Maybe he wasn’t going to kill them before.  But that was before Cal pulled out the gun.  Nobody who sees Parker like that ever forgets.  A Romero zombie would be comforting by comparison.  Still, Cory could just keep driving.

A brother is not so easily abandoned.

Absolute panic compelled him to drive hard for three or four minutes on a road with no traffic until he overtook a slow-moving pickup and had to decelerate.  As he slowed, the panic receded and clear thought came back, and he knew he had to go take care of Cal.  He was the younger brother, but he’d always been the one with brains, the one who went along with Cal’s stunts but then–sometimes–got them both out of trouble when things went too far.

Cal was hit.  Shot.  How bad?

(So they’re not twins, after all?  Cal was just joking about that?  Or is Cory the younger brother by a few minutes?  For our purposes, it doesn’t really matter.  So I don’t really care.)

Nobody there at the gas station. No body. No Ed Smith.  No Infiniti.  The gun’s still there on the ground, where Cal dropped it.  Cory picks it up.  What would you have done?

Chapter 13 is Captain Robert Modale, trying to put all the pieces together.  A man is dead.  He shot a parrot, then committed suicide by cop.  Two people were tied up in a gas station by one of the escaped bank robbers, who stole a really nice car.  The dead man’s wife says he killed a vagrant while on the police manhunt that no armed civilians should have had any part in, and this house guest of Ed Lindahl’s they now know was the bank robber convinced them both to stay quiet about it, and it drove Fred Thiemann crazy, so he shot a parrot.  Of course.  It all makes perfect sense now.  The only thing Modale knows for sure is that if he gets his hands on Tom Lindahl, he’s going to have a whole lot of questions.

At Gro-More, one of the two security guards is bored.  He decides to go for a walk around the complex.  What the hell.  Do his job, why not?  He retires next month.  He’s feeling nostalgic.  So he walks around, and he sees headlights–a car.  In a place no car should be this time of night.  Could be more crazy people wanting to hurt the horses stabled there.  He hadn’t set out to be a hero, but…..(is a goddam leitmotif in this book).

Tom Lindahl (they were his lights) reaches the dirt road he needs to turn off on, to reach the point where he and Parker can enter the complex, do the job. And he keeps going a ways, until he reaches another damn diner (no McDonalds up there?), and pulls over by a dumpster.  To think.  Maybe this was all a bad idea, start to finish.  But even bad ideas happen for a reason.  It’s the reason he’s after.  Why did he start this?  Where should he go now?

I can’t go back there.  He meant Pooley, he meant the little converted garage he’d been living in, he meant that whole life.

He didn’t think, I can’t go home.  That wasn’t home, he hadn’t had a home in years.  That was where he’d camped out, waiting for something to happen, although, until Smith had come along, there was never anything going to happen except one day he wouldn’t be waiting any more.

But Smith had come along and riled up the waters.  Tom had met him, and hooked up with him, and told him about his racetrack opportunity, because he’d thought he wanted revenge and money, but he’d been wrong.  He’d wanted a hand grenade to throw into the middle of his empty unbearable life, and boy, he’d sure found one.

And he knows, as he stands there in the dark, that whether he robs the track or not, he’s a marked man.  Too many people know too many things about him and his guest.  Tom Lindahl is going to get arrested if he goes home, so there can’t be any Tom Lindahl anymore.  He’s got to become somebody else, somewhere else.  But he still needs some closure, so he’ll go back, wait for Ed.  If Ed doesn’t show, he’ll just leave.

Once the decision was made, it was easy, as though it had always been easy; he’d just been too close to it to see the path.  Now he could see it.  He started the engine, drove to Dead End, and this time headed on in.  He went to where there was the right turn to the chain-link fence, and stopped at the gate there.  He didn’t get out of the car but looked through the fence at the clubhouse and after a minute switched off the headlights.  He didn’t need them to know where he was.

Smith, in the dark beside Tom’s open window said, “Time to get started.”

(Tom doesn’t pee his pants, that we hear about, so he’s not kidding himself about being ready.)

So that’s Part Three.  Part Four is seven chapters, thirty-four pages in the first edition.  Not enough for a Part 4 review, even on this blog.  Time to finish up.

Chapter 1 is the penultimate Stark Rewind, and one of the best in the series.  It doesn’t tell us much we didn’t already know.  Parker knew Cory had a plan, figured out what it was, countered it.  If Cal hadn’t taken out his gun, Parker would have just stopped them from going any further, but you know Cal.  And Parker knows who the real threat is.

The other one got scared, all right, and skittered away from there like a drop of water on a hot frying pan, but Parker knew he’d be back.  Cory’d made it his business to stand with his dumber crazier brother, so once the fright wore off, he’d have to come back.

Not 100% sure Cory won’t bleat to the troopers manning the roadblock, Parker disposes of Cal’s body, dumping it down a roadside gulch, into a creek.  He gets to the track ahead of Tom, and waits. Wondering if Tom’s nerve will hold.  He really does need a good score, but there’s no point without Tom’s keys and knowledge of the terrain.  If it’s not in the cards, he’ll just head back to Claire.  “It had been too long since he’d seen her.”  (Now that’s a Starkian love poem, much better than that schmaltz about the doors and windows in Flashfire.)

There are two pallets of cash waiting for them.  Much more than expected.  Parker says there’s no time to count it out, do a dead even split–stuff both duffels full of bills no smaller than a ten, they’ll each take one, and they’re done. Fortune favors the bold. Unless they’re security guards on the verge of retirement.

Bill, the hulking 6’5 rent-a-cop, who felt like taking a reminiscent stroll prior to his last day on the job, has stumbled across them.  Parker motions Tom to hide–and plays another role–the guy who came to play the ponies and drink, fell asleep in the men’s room. Honest, mister, I don’t know why all these doors were unlocked–I couldn’t find a way out!  Sure, call the cops if you like, just get me out of here.  And take me to your partner, so I can get you both out of the running.

Bill, suspicious, but not enough, takes Parker to the guard’s room where Max, the other guard feels like this guy is a bit of a smartass, might have to tenderize him. Parker takes out Hopwood’s little automatic, and a tender little moment follows, with a terrified Bill pleading with Max to remember how close they both are to getting out of this place alive. No need to bother with boot-laces this time, since they both have handcuffs.  Very convenient.

Parker gets back to the money room, where Tom is in a morbid state of mind, even for him.  He’s sure Parker killed the guards, both of whom he knew from his days at the track.  Parker explains once again that thing about how you don’t kill when you don’t have to, because it makes the law take you more seriously.  He can’t understand why everyone assumes he’s this mad dog killer.  (Doesn’t look in the mirror much.)

Tom is coming to terms with everything that’s happened because of his snap decision to go find Parker on that hillside, save him from the hounds.  He doesn’t know what happened to Fred (or his parrot), but he knows something awful will happen.  Parker, showing more patience than you’d expect, says Fred was already going crazy, because of his son, maybe.

If Fred had turned himself in, that might have purged his guilt, but he would have been just as doomed, because the mills of the law grind so exceeding fine.  He was doomed the moment he squeezed the trigger.  Nothing Tom did changed that.  It’s bad enough to be guilty about your own bad decisions you can never take back.  If you’re going to take responsibility for everyone else’s, where does it end?

Now Tom’s ready to start in on the old hobo, whose body they left to be devoured by scavengers; deprived him of a decent funeral, embalming fluids, a few scattered family members pretending they’re sorry he’s gone.  Tom never heard of sky burial, I guess.  Or certain practices of the North American Plains Indians. Or Robinson Jeffers.  May my own remains come to such a noble end.  Parker reminds Tom that if they don’t get out of there soon, they’ll come to a far worse one.  Tom agrees.

The loot is stowed in the duffels–Tom didn’t let his guilt paralyze him.  But they have one more hurdle to clear.  Cory’s here.  It’s not about the money anymore, for him.

Parker has to fill Tom in on what happened further back along the highway.  Tom has to process that while Parker doesn’t kill when he doesn’t need to, sometimes he really needs to.  And sometimes that creates the need to kill again. Another reason not to do it if you don’t have to.

Their strategic position could be better.  Cory, being the smart Dennison brother, has picked a spot outside, in view of their two cars, where he can pick them both off, if they go out the way they came in.  Parker has to try and flank him.  He has no reason to think Tom would be an asset in this fight, so he tells him to stay put–but Tom wants to know–suppose Parker loses?  Parker tells him to go to the guard room, get one of their revolvers. Then he goes hunting. For someone who is already hunting him.

What follows over most of the final three chapters must have been challenging to write–certainly challenging to write about, and I think I’ll pass.  Several men in the dark, with guns, maneuvering around, looking for an advantage, a target.  It’s exciting to read, and very hard to describe.  It’s the kind of scene Westlake himself was painfully aware could be more effectively depicted on film.

With one major exception–prose fiction’s great advantage over the visual arts, and Westlake knew it–he can tell us what’s going on inside the heads of the characters.  In this case, Parker’s head, since it’s all from his POV.  We follow him around in the dark, watch him calculate the odds with cold dispassion.  We only know what he knows.  And what he doesn’t.

He doesn’t know exactly where Cory is.  He doesn’t know what Tom is doing.  He doesn’t know if he can trust Tom not to pull a cross.  He doesn’t know if Cory is too overcome with rage to think clearly, or if his anger has made him more focused.  He assumes only one thing.  That if he sees Cory’s silhouette, backlit in the darkness, he’ll shoot him.

Cory gets a few shots off, and Parker knows he thinks maybe he’s killed Parker.  The maybe would only make him more frightened, as his rage begins to cool. Because now he’s not sure of anything.

We’re sure–Parker is unhurt, lying low, still waiting.  Tom emerges–Parker wonders where he’s been, what he’s planning.  He calls for ‘Ed’–Parker doesn’t respond.  Cory and Tom talk.  Cory says he’s killed Ed.  Does Tom believe him? Tom asks if Cory wants to kill him too.  Cory says no.  Does Tom believe that?  Does he just want to get away with all the cash?  Then Tom, who did get one of the guards’ guns, shoots at Cory, misses, but this provides covering fire for Parker to shift position undetected.  He knew, as Parker did, that Cory needed both of them.

In the end, nobody catches a bullet.  Cory, his strategy defeated, his nerve broken, gets clubbed over the head with the butt of Parker’s pistol, as he searches through the parked cars for Parker’s body.  Unlikely he’s dead, though he could have a bad concussion.  Parker doesn’t check. Because he doesn’t care.

He comes up on Tom in the darkness again–he did believe Cory killed Parker, so he’s taking the second duffel, putting it in his car, preparing to scram before the law shows.  Parker isn’t offended, he’d have done the same thing (he has done the same thing).  He’s pleased.  Tom got their money.  Now they need to go their separate ways.  Two roads diverging in a wood.

I will allow myself one more long quote.  These two have packed a lot into their short time together.  Now they have to express something to each other.  Without using a lot of words.  Or time.

Parker opened the rear cargo door and looked in at the two long mounds, like body bags.  Lindahl came and stood beside him, looking in at the bags.  “I did it,” he said, his voice quiet but proud.  “I know, you and me together did it, but I did it.  After all this time.”

“We’ll just put it on the ground outside,” Parker said, reaching for the top duffel, “beside the wall.”

“You don’t want me to see your car.”

“You don’t need to see my car.  Come on, Tom.”

They put their arms around the end of the duffel and carried it around the car and through the gate and put it on the ground beside the wall.  Looking down at it, Lindahl said, “Half the time I was sure, if we ever got it, and I never thought we’d get it, but I was sure…” His voice trailed off, with a little vague hand gesture.

“You were sure I’d shoot you,” Parker said.  “I know.”

“You could have, anytime.”

Parker said, “You brought me the job, you went in on the job with  me, that’s yours.”

Lindahl giggled; a strange sound out here.  “You mean,” he said, “like, honor among thieves?”

“No,” Parker said.  I mean a professional is a professional.  Take off, Tom, and stay away from roadblocks.  That car might be burned by now.”

“I’ll be okay,” said Lindahl.  The giggle had opened some looseness inside of him, some confidence, as though he’d suddenly had a drink.  “So long,” he said, and got behind the wheel of the Ford.  His window was open; he looked out and might have said something else, but Parker shook  his head, so Lindahl simply put the Ford in gear and drove away from there.

Once Lindahl had made the turn onto the dirt road leading to the county road, Parker went over to bring the Infiniti up close to the duffel.  By then, Lindahl was out of sight.  Parker wondered how far he’d get.

Parker wondered how far he’d get.  Perhaps the most six most enigmatic words in all twenty-four books.  He didn’t wonder if the  man who just tried to shoot him was dead.  He does wonder what will become of his fellow hunter. Parker never wonders about things he doesn’t care about.

Earlier in the book, when Parker told Tom that his best course of action after the heist would be to stay where he was, gut it out, face down the law, Tom responded, “It’s like hunting, I see that.  In some ways, it’s like hunting.  The main thing is, you have to be patient.  If you’re patient, you’ll get what you want.” Parker’s only rejoinder was his usual two-syllable affirmative.

As I’ve said already, Parker was not giving Tom good advice there.  Tom could never have stayed in Pooley and kept out of jail–probably not even if he hadn’t pulled the heist.  But it was for Tom to figure that out for himself.  He already had, when the job started, for reasons of his own–but Parker couldn’t know that.

He does know that to get that pistol he fired at Cal, Tom had to show his face to the two guards, who would have recognized him, could identify him.  He knows Tom wouldn’t have killed them.  So he knows he doesn’t need to tell Tom it’s time to leave Pooley, leave this part of the country, never look back.  I don’t know if he would have.  I’m guessing not.

Knowing more about what happened back in Pooley earlier that day, Parker does warn Tom that they probably already know about him, will be looking for his car.  He didn’t need to say that.  Tom could have figured it out for himself, as he has so many other things, in the course of the nigh-Himalayan learning curve he’s traversed the last two days.

But a professional is a professional.  Get it?  There are certain courtesies professionals owe each other.  And nothing else, far as Parker is concerned. Good fences make good neighbors.

But he still wonders.  To wonder implies giving a damn either way.  Why does he care?  Ask the Parrot.

Twenty-three down.  One to go.  That’s right.

(And a sidebar:  Up top, below the cover image for the audiobook, you see a photo of Vernon Downs, the only racetrack that actually exists between Albany and Syracuse–too far from the border with Massachusetts to be the track in this novel, but perhaps a model for Gro-More, all the same. John O’Leary mentioned it in the comments section, and I looked it up.

Last June, the owner was threatening to close the whole complex down.  First the casino [of course they got one, the sport of kings and the king of sports go together like Donald Trump and pussy-grabbing], then the track, then the hotel.  Last day for the track would have been November 11th.  I was going to write a little elegy, but then I found another article that said the state assembly caved, in the face of several hundred jobs disappearing, and agreed to give Vernon a bigger cut of the casino money.

If you want to know where your cut is, maybe ask the parrot about that too.)

 

(Part of Friday’s Forgotten Books)

26 Comments

Filed under Donald Westlake novels, Parker Novels, Richard Stark